Somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, a strange-looking purple light hovers above still waters. While that might seem like a strange event from the legend of the Clarksdale crossroads, it is an important part of local life.
Each day, powerful ultra-violet lights have become a powerfully effective method of water treatment. Gone are the days of placing chlorine in drinking water. Gone also are the dangers of transporting and handling chemicals. These state-of-the-art, specially constructed lights are now used by the Clarksdale Public Utilities and others across America. Even hospitals use them.
Clarksdale Public Utility (CPU) has become a cutting-edge company in serving its customers through advanced technology in the delivery of services and helping customers manage their accounts. CPU is the heir to a tradition of public utility service established by the Clarksdale city government over a hundred and twenty years ago.
“We try to keep up with the technology,” explained Curtis Boschert, the General Manager and leader of the CPU since September of 2018. “We send out text alerts when something is going on. We send emails and texts when their bill is due. We provide updates on social media. We engage with our customers in every way possible.”
Boschert fully understands engaging with the people of Clarksdale. Before the city tapped him to lead the CPU, he spent years as the city attorney of Clarksdale, and also years as its city prosecutor. As a longtime city leader and lawyer, he was a natural choice to lead the public utility.
In recent weeks, the CPU has successfully navigated an ice storm and power outages. Soon, the winter will wane and the threats will change. As the days grow warmer and longer, tornadoes and severe weather will emerge as the greatest threats. Continued U.S. mail delays have made billing and payments more complex.
Through it all, the CPU and its entire team undertake to provide ongoing, affordable service.
A glimpse into the world of the Clarksdale Public Utilities can be achieved…by the numbers.
CPU by the numbers
The beginning of the public utility in Clarksdale
At least seven employees have recently retired with over 25 years of service since 2018. The culture at the CPU begets employees who work hard and enjoy their jobs.
In addition to years as city prosecutor, Boschert spent 14 years as Clarksdale’s city attorney. Navigating the numerous statutes and regulations imposed on local governments left Boschert well-equipped to lead the CPU.
The CPU serves 6,250 electricity customers. Many are surprised to learn that the CPU’s service area is not exactly the incorporated area of Clarksdale. “We serve out to parts of Lyon,” Boschert explained. But in other parts of town, our service ends before the city limits, like on State Street before it reaches the old Wal-Mart. Also the country club area is served by Coahoma Electric.
Approximately 70 employees are part of the CPU team that provides and restores electricity, water and sewer services.
The CPU uses three different ways to notify its customers about services and bills. Along with the U.S. Mail, the CPU offers both text and email services. Using these, the CPU customers are notified of due (and past-due) bills, important announcements, and urgent weather news. “Because of the issues that Covid has caused with mail delivery, our team at the CPU has tried to do our part to help our customers and give them ways in addition to the mail system,” Boschert said.
With a presence on Twitter, in 280 words or less, the CPU also keeps an active social media presence, providing real-time updates during storms and outages. The CPU’s Facebook sports over 1,300 followers.
Over 6,000 water customers and over 5,400 sewer customers join the electricity customers as the customer base for the CPU.
The five members of the Clarksdale Public Utilities Board of Commissioners are deeply engaged in the community and active participants in the monthly business of the CPU. The members are Chairman Dr. James Humber, IV, Vice-Chairman Adrian Allen, Secretary George Mille, Don Mitchell and Shirley Hicks.“The board members keep up closely with what is happening in the community,” Boschert said. “Sometimes they hear things even before we do.”
Three words: Advanced Metering Infrastructure: For electric meters, we don’t know what customers are using, but our Advanced Metering Infrastructure gives us valuable and reliable real-time information on what is happening with electricity in Clarksdale. The system will show a spike in usage. There are 7 gateways of usage, to which all units are connected wirelessly. And each of those send the signals here, so we know about outages or even meter tampering. In the past, to cut off electrical service, we had to send a truck, but now we can either end or resume electrical service on the keyboard.
Most people either remember or have heard about the massive ice storm that bombarded the Mississippi Delta in 1994. Hopefully there won’t be any more storms with the ferocity and damage of the one that hit in 1994, but the CPU is well prepared when the fury of mother nature strikes. When asked about the ways in which the CPU prepares for ice storms, Boschert laughed and said the first thing I do is pray it won’t be another 1994.
When the likelihood of inclement weather arises, the CPU implements their plan to face whatever comes with 100 percent preparation. What about potentially catastrophic disasters? “We have a contract in place with a company for that type of disaster work,” Boschert said, but thankfully we have not had to use that contract yet.
But still, they’re ready. “Currently, we have two contracts with firms, one helps change poles out and they’re here every week for 40 hours, so they were in town to help as needed,” he added. “We have another company that was on call and ready to go.”
And then there are the seemingly smaller details. “We fuel our trucks up. All of them,” Boschert said. “We have people assigned to make sure that every one of our chain saws is ready if or when we need them. We make sure our trucks are fully stocked with each piece of equipment or tools or items necessary.”
As Boschert explained, preparing for inclement weather means more than just getting ready for an upcoming storm. It also includes long-term preparation to foresee issues and preempt them before they become problems.
In that context, long term preparation for inclement weather includes tree-trimming along the lines. Whether its ice storms or other types of severe weather, falling trees and tree limbs can create dangerous situations and cause outages.
Over the past three years, we’ve spent over $500,000 in tree maintenance. Some of that is done throughout the town. We’re not through with it. We’ve just entered into an agreement for another $300,000 worth of work to remove overhanging limbs and other tree issues that can cause outages.
We’re also working with the engineering firms on a study to learn how we can improve reliability and fortify the circuits so we can reduce outages. We also want to be better able to isolate any problems to a smaller area and keep that problem from knocking a whole circuit out.
Even one pine tree can cause a significant disruption for Clarksdale’s families and businesses. During the latest ice storm, we had a circuit go out because a dead pine tree, outside of the right of way where we can clear, fell and knocked some lines down. Icy roads are an issue for us too. Obviously, having a heavier truck means we’re less likely to get hurt if our trucks slip and slide, but it’s still not a desirable situation.”
It might not have reached the severity of 1994, but the Easter weekend storms of 2020 were both severe and deadly. “In Easter weekend of 2020, heavy winds knocked down a lot of lines,” Boschert said. “We probably had close to 80 percent of our lines down at one point. But after the first day we then had 80 percent of them on.”
5 and 10
Outstanding planning and preparation by the CPU resulted in the numbers 5 and 10 during the recent ice storms of early February, as Boschert explained. “In the recent storm, the widespread outage happened around 5 that morning, and we had almost all of the service restored by 10.”
Boschert did not hesitate when asked about the one thing that has pleased him the most about serving as General Manager of the CPU. “I’ve been most pleased that we have a lot of good people who are competent at their work, who care about their community, and who want to do a good job,” he said. “This job has been a challenge, but there have been a lot of good people to work with. We’re worked well with the mayor and the commissioners and the business community. We’ve assembled a strong team of people. We’ve hired some strong employees. We’ve also hired good consultants. We have a consulting engineer who helps with water and wastewater. We have an engineer who focuses on the electric, the nuts and bolts of circuits and wires for electrical purposes. So we’ve got a good team overall.
Beyond the numbers
Even beyond the numbers, Boschert sees a number of good things happening in town. “Clarksdale and the world have suffered from the entire Covid event,” he said. “The shutdown cut tourism almost down to nothing for a year and a half or more. So the festivals suffered, and hopefully we’re getting that going back again.”
When Boschert was asked about the company’s chili cookoff in November, when employees explained to The Clarksdale Press Register that they were proud to work with the CPU, he was not surprised by the expressions of pride and loyalty.
“That has been a positive thing,” he said. “Our people do take pride in their work and are proud to be here. Since I’ve been here, there have been several people who have retired with 25-plus years. That says a lot that people would be here for that long. Our folks here take pride in their work and their role in the community.”
As a side note about the chili contest, outside judges were brought in, and the chili entrees had numbers, rather than names, so the judges had no idea whose chili recipes they were sampling. When Boschert won the contest, the inevitable kidding ensued.
Chili aside, just as the team of employees is proud, so is their general manager. “We’re proud to be a part of Clarksdale. We think there’s a great value for the city and all of us to have a locally-owned electric utility. The money paid for electrical services stays in our community, in the same way that the people of Clarksdale intended when they created our public power and utility in 1899.”