Wheeler, 66, who joined CU in 1971 as a distribution engineer and who has served as the utility’s leader since 1989, informed board members of his retirement plans in a formal session on April 4. At that gathering, the board took no official action on Wheeler’s letter, and a couple of members — Mayor Tom Rowland and Vice Chairman Eddie Cartwright — even lightheartedly suggested they might not accept it.
But in Thursday’s formal monthly session at the CU Training Center, which is named in Wheeler’s honor, the board approved the CEO’s retirement plans.
Board chairman Aubrey Ector seemed to dread bringing up the subject — which was placed as the third item on the short agenda — when he told board members the vote was mostly a formality, yet required.
After a short pause, and not until the board again voiced its appreciation for Wheeler’s years of leadership and dedicated service, Ector called for a motion.
“[Mr. Chairman], I make that motion ... very reluctantly,” Cartwright offered.
Rowland, who represents the City Council on the CU board, added, “[Mr. Chairman], I second that motion ... very reluctantly.”
Board members accepted Wheeler’s letter of retirement on a 5-0 vote. Also supporting the motion were board members Chari Buckner and Joe Cate, as well as Ector.
Wheeler’s retirement will be effective Nov. 1; however, figuring in personal leave and accumulated unused time off work, his final day of work will be sometime around Oct. 1.
“My desire was to retire leaving Cleveland Utilities in good shape to continue to serve the needs of our customers for many years to come,” Wheeler said in the board’s gathering on April 4. “I feel I have accomplished this goal.”
Wheeler pointed out then, and stood by those sentiments Thursday, stating, “The physical plant in our electric, water and wastewater systems is in good condition. There is adequate capacity for all three departments to continue to serve the needs of our community well into the future. We have been able to keep our physical plant updated and well-maintained while at the same time upholding a solid financial position.”
Although CU’s physical plant earned Wheeler’s high marks, he heaped most of his praise on the utility’s workforce.
“... The future strength of Cleveland Utilities lies in its almost 200 employees,” he stressed. “Our employees are dedicated to their jobs, [they are] well-trained, and [they are] motivated to do a good job for Cleveland. I believe I am leaving a workforce that will have no problem continuing the high level of service we have tried to develop during my time at Cleveland Utilities.”
Under Wheeler’s leadership, and through much of his own strategy in working with the company’s Water Division, the local utility more than a year ago embarked on an aggressive 10-year sewer rehabilitation project whose total cost is projected to hit $30 million. SCOPE 10, an acronym for Strategic Commitment to Protect the Environment, is targeting the curtailment of inflow and infiltration (I/I) which is a seepage of ground water into existing wastewater lines through cracks, breaks and manhole damage.
Reducing I/I is expected to lessen manhole overflows, flash flooding inside parts of the city and isolated residential sewer backups.
As its name indicates, SCOPE 10 is expected to span the next decade, at which time CU will make gradual repairs and improvements to the aging system year by year.
Currently, CU is pursuing a $10 million loan from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Clean Water State Revolving Fund Loan Program. If awarded to CU, the SRF will forgive $451,200 in repayment as an incentive for the local utility to stay committed to SCOPE 10.
In order to qualify for the SRF loan, the CU board and City Council have approved a 5 percent sewer rate hike for the coming year. It takes effect July 1. In its budget forecasts for the next four years, CU had already planned a 4.5 percent sewer rate hike in order to help pay for the SCOPE 10 improvements. TDEC recommended the amount be pushed to 5 percent to assure loan repayment.
Because Wheeler gave a full six-month notice, the CU board — at least in its last two meetings — has not discussed the CEO’s successor. His second in command is Ken Webb, senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Other CU administrators include Bart Borden, vice president of the Electric Division; Craig T. Mullinax, vice president of the Water Division; Tim Henderson, vice president of Administrative Services; and Walt Vineyard, vice president of Information Technology.
The board’s next scheduled meeting is Thursday, May 23, at 3 p.m. in the Training Center.