Lakeland Electric employees who went to Puerto Rico last week to help restore the power grid will continue their work undeterred by the political turmoil over the company chosen to coordinate the work, the utility’s director says.

“People still need our help and we are still going to provide it,” Lakeland Electric’s Joel Ivy told LkldNow.

Like several other Florida municipal utilities, Lakeland Electric sent employees and equipment to Puerto Rico to help in the months-long recovery from damaged caused by Hurricane Maria Sept. 20. (Check a timeline of the long process to restore power.)

In Lakeland’s case, 16 linemen were accompanied by two mechanics, a supervisor and an engineer. Lakeland Electric also shipped 10 vehicles, including 6 large bucket trucks, via barge from Jacksonville. Their work is expected to last 30 days.

Until recently, the work to restore power to the island was being coordinated by a two-man Montana company called Whitefish Energy Holdings. However, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority severed the $300 million contract with Whitefish after questions were raised about the company’s ability to carry off the big task and whether the company won the work through political connections.

Ivy told USA Today he’s been involved in numerous “mutual aid” agreements with other utilities to restore power after a disaster — as when out-of-town crews came to Lakeland after Hurricane Irma and other times Lakeland Electric linemen have gone out of state.

But the Puerto Rico situation has been different. Ivy told USA Today he first had to figure out who to deal with and then spend a week negotiating with Whitefish.

“This was an odd arrangement from the start,” he told LkldNow.   “Not so much that they hired a firm to oversee the logistics of mutual aid, but the charging mechanisms seemed out of place.  A flat fee service would have been realistic under these circumstances.”

Before sending the crews, Ivy had to make sure his employees would have adequate food and shelter and that the shipped equipment was properly assured, USA Today reported.

The Jacksonville Electric Authority, the first Florida utility sending help to Puerto Rico, reports that workers haven’t been paid after three weeks’ work. The utility has sent weekly invoices to Whitefish, but the company keeps asking for more backup documents, JEA General Manager Mike Brost told USA Today.

But Ivy said he’s convinced payments will be sorted out. “Are we on the hook for it?  Look at it this way, if we are this is PREPA’s last mutual aid from anyone, ever.  So I am not in a panic mode about it,” Ivy said in an email to LkldNow.

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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