Romancing the Stones

Houston Lighting & Power's parent company, Houston Industries, is currently renovating the downtown office tower at 1100 Milam as its new headquarters. And they're certainly sparing no expense, judging by a recent field trip by an HL&P executive, representatives of the general contractor and architects on the project, who toured the marble quarries of Italy to inspect tiles for the foyer of the building. And what better time to take a European junket at corporate expense than the dog days of mid-summer, when the town often seems as hot as the reactor cores at HL&P's South Texas Nuclear Project during those increasingly rare periods when operational problems haven't shut them down?

"Our Dave Barker [general manager of HL&P's corporate services] did go to Italy along with the architect we've acquired on this building renovation, as well as the general contractor," says HL&P spokesman Graham Painter, who offers this justification for the trip: "They met with a stone supply company, and the reason they met with that one was that they took bids and the Italian company was the low bid. This company will be a subcontractor for the general contractor, Miner Dederick." Painter says the Italians wanted a representative of the building owner there to confirm the order. The marble will be used in various parts of the structure, which will acquire a more prestigious address as a result of the work. "We're going to have the front facing a different direction, so I believe it's going to be 1111 Louisiana," says Painter.

Painter says that Barker's Italian jaunt will be paid for by Houston Industries, not the Light Company, and will not be factored into costs that are footed by electric customers. "HL&P profit levels are set by the PUC at a reasonable level, and the profits go to Houston Industries," explains Painter. "If Houston Industries spends some money, that's not considered when rates are set."

But Tim Curtis of Texas Citizen, an Austin-based utility watchdog, says it's not that simple. "We never get a reconciliation [of expenses] at the Public Utility Commission when we go through a rate case, we just look at a test year. And if this year ends up not being a test year, we'll never know whether [the trip to Italy] gets charged to rate-payers. But if they're making enough profits to put into Houston Industries to finance junkets, they're obviously over-earning."

Curtis suggests there are more appropriate destinations for HL&P executives. "Somebody should be taking a junket to figure out how to run a nuclear plant. Somebody should be taking trips to figure out how to institute real energy conservation for the service. There's a lot of things they should be doing."

At least in the future, when you go to 1100 Milam, er... Louisiana... to drop off a payment or ask for an adjustment, you'll be able to admire the stone and appreciate the conscientious effort that went into inspecting all that nice Italian marble


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