Winter Park starts hard sell for burying electric wires

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Steven Lemongello

Published September 9, 2015


Winter Park is spending $3.5 million a year for the next decade to bury its remaining electrical wires. But the wires on private property are another matter..

So the city and its electric utility have launched a rare marketing campaign to entice 5,000 residents to go along with burying the service wires on their properties.

And if that carrot doesn't work, utility officials say, they may have to use the stick.

"Service" wires, located on private property, are separate from the primary and secondary wires being buried underground as part of the city's decade-long plan. Already, 60 percent of the city utility's wires are underground.

Usually, so-called undergrounding is a joint effort between a city that wants to improve the way streets look and electric companies that will do the work if the city pays for it. So the extra work of burying service wires can fall through the cracks and leave solitary poles connected by overhead wires to single homes.

Winter Park Electric Utility workers doing work on a neighborhood near Lake Sue, one of the next areas for wires to be undergrounded.


But in Winter Park, the city owns the electric utility. It's spending $3.5 million a year, paid for through capital reserves, to continue the undergrounding of lines around town — and it's also taking a more active role in dealing with service wires.


The city is reaching out to customers and even knocking on doors to let them know about a discount available if they agree to bury their service wires at the same time as the city is burying the main wires in their neighborhood.

Instead of the usual $3,000 cost of burying service wires, "If we get the homeowner to agree to underground the service wires, we'll do it for $1,000. Then we don't have to schedule it separately, and we don't have to put a crew out separately."

Unfortunately for some customers, it's too late. They've paid the full freight to have their wires buried because many did not know the discounts existed. Of those customers who made the transition, only a third took advantage of the program.

"We're just doing a poor job of marketing," Warren said. "I've had people say, 'Gosh, you should have told me earlier', or 'Gosh, I wish there was a payment plan.'"

So more mailers will go out in the coming weeks, more cards will be handed out, more doors will be knocked on.

Full Sail also created a video starring Mayor Steve Leary, walking along one of the newly pole-free streets and praising the program.

The city is offering upfront payment as well as one- and two-year payment plans, and also hopes that peer pressure will have an effect on customers from neighbors who don't want to see one or two stray poles and wires on their streets.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said that such a "proactive" incentive program is unique.

While Winter Park requires burying service wires for new construction or an expansion that doubles a property's value, Duke and other private utilities are required by the state Public Service Commission to build in the "most economic manner possible" — which results in cheaper overhead wires.

Burying existing overhead wires is usually only done in connection with a homeowners association or city — as Winter Park is also doing with its recently annexed, Duke-serviced areas along West Fairbanks Avenue — and usually companies won't offer such discounts.

But what would happen to those who refuse?

After undergrounding, "from a reliability and aesthetic point of view, we are less about poles," Warren said. "On Temple Drive, there are quite a few service poles, but once we [buried] the primary and secondary wires, we quit pruning. The poles are left back in the trees."

At some point, the city would be using bucket trucks only for maintenance of service poles — at which point the city would need to assess whether it should continue to even have them at all.

"You can't keep bucket trucks just because a few customers didn't want to convert," he said.

Customers with overhead service wires might be required to handle maintenance themselves by calling electricians, Warren said.

If all else fails, though, there are what he called the "heavy hand" methods.

Among them:

  • Underground by a certain time or the city will do it and put a lien on the property or place a 48-month assessment on the bill.

  • Bill extra for service calls related to overhead service wires, or increase the customer service charge.

  • Possibly even discontinue service for overhead service wires.

Warren said that the city hopes it doesn't get that far and that the incentive program works they way they plan. Already, he said, about 75 percent of those informed about the discount have reacted positively.

"We'll start now," Warren said. "And if at the end of the day we have a few hundred left? Then we'll discuss what our strategy is."