Before irma outages, duke energy cut its tree-trimming budget in pinellas and pasco gas 4 less manhattan ks

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More than 520,000 customers lost electricity in Irma across Pinellas and Pasco, two of the hardest hit counties in Duke’s service area. Angry residents saw fallen branches and wires everywhere — evidence, they thought, that Duke should have been better prepared.

Dwight Dudley, a former St. Petersburg state representative often critical of power utilities, said Duke needs to be able to handle a Category 1 storm like Irma without more than three-quarters of its local customers losing power. He added that a crew came out and trimmed trees in his alley only after the hurricane knocked out power, timing he found bitterly ironic.

"This is the new millennium. We have science and technology. We can do all kinds of things, but we can’t manage the debris? We can’t do vegetation maintenance better?" said Dudley, a Democrat. "If you’re granted the right of monopoly in our state and you’re allowed to make billions upon billions from consumers, then you need to step up your game."

In St. Petersburg, according to the mayor’s office, a resident complaint app registered about 650 reports related to "tree-trimming/removal" or "storm-related requests" since the weekend of the hurricane. The city cannot parse how many specifically mentioned Duke Energy or power lines.

"Hurricane Irma clearly identified the need for there to be more distance between tree branches and power lines," Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement, adding that the city will be mindful of tree planting and will work with Duke "to ensure proper maintenance" in the future.

Of the four Duke Energy Florida regions, South Coastal — the section composed of Pinellas and Pasco — has the biggest annual vegetation management budget. It was more than $9.5 million for each of the three years before dropping off in 2016. The projected budget for 2017 called for even less spending.

Duke enhanced its vegetation program a few years ago, he said, expanding the right of way for clearing trees and boosting herbicide spraying to cut down on future growth. Not all of that work, he said, is reflected in the annual trimming budget.

Not all trimming is Duke’s responsibility, either. The company typically handles trees within about 20 feet of transmission or distribution lines. It has easements that allow workers to access poles and wires, even if they are on private property. Service lines, which extend directly from poles to houses, are the responsibility of homeowners.

Duke does not yet know how much it has spent on recovery from Irma, but the company will soon ask the Florida Public Service Commission to approve a surcharge for the cost of cleanup, said J.R. Kelly, the public counsel who represents the state’s utility customers.

Florida Power & Light got permission for a surcharge of about $3.36 per month on average household bills after Hurricane Matthew raked the east coast last year. Customers began paying it in March, and the charge — covering more than $300 million in FPL’s recovery costs — is expected to last a year.

"We’re going to want to hear from the PSC and the utility companies as to the relationship between the maintenance and the tree-cutting and how it relates to downed power lines," said state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who will serve on a special House committee examining preparedness after Irma.

"I think it’s self-evident that their tree-trimming was less than needed," he said. "You sort of want to ask Duke, ‘So what did it cost you to restore power?’ And that number’s got to be big. I don’t think anybody saves any money by reducing their tree-trimming budget."