CLARKSVILLE, TN (WSMV) - How would you like to work an average of one hour a week and get paid $25,000 per year?
That’s what the News4 I-Team found at Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation.
CEMC provides electricity to more than 90,000 households in parts of Sumner, Stewart, Cheatham, Montgomery and Robertson counties.
Electric co-ops were formed in the 1930s when electric companies didn’t serve rural areas.
Neighbors got together and built their own systems. Everyone owns a piece of the co-op.
Most people don’t think about our local electric company until the bill spikes or the power goes out. If you’re a member of an electric co-op, and one of every three Tennesseans is, you own and manage your co-op.
Today, the neighbors who serve on the co-op’s board of directors are paid, and sometimes paid very well.
Three of CEMC’s board members were paid more than $40,000 each, according to CEMC’s 990 tax returns for the fiscal year running from July 2017 through June 2018.
Wendy Young, a part-time employee at a Pleasant View landscaping business, was astonished.
“I don’t even know what to say. Wow,” said Young.
If you do the math, you find the board member who reported working one hour a week and made $25,000 per year earned, on average, $481 for each hour.
“That is insane,” said Young.
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CEMC, like other electric membership co-ops, pays its board members a per diem, that is a set amount for every day they work on co-op business.
Board members are paid a per diem for every monthly board meeting they attend, regardless of whether the meeting runs one hour or three or four.
The News4 I-Team asked Cumberland Electric’s general manager about the per diem rate.
“I can tell you the base per diem when you first come on the board, per meeting, is around $800,” General Manager Chris Davis told News4.
The per diem can go up as the board member continues to serve.
“It goes up based on your training, education and how many that you attend,” said Davis.
Davis would not say what the highest per diem rate on the board is.
“Well I’m not comfortable saying how much at this point,” said Davis.
“Holy moly! My husband didn’t make that much when he was a government contractor going back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Young said when told of the per diem rate.
According to 990 tax returns, board member Sheila Williams was paid $41,100 by Cumberland Electric. She reported working an average of 12 hours per week.
CEMC reported that it paid board member Edward Oliver $42,200 for working an average of 9.2 hours per week.
Board member Wesley Aymett was paid $45,200 for working a reported 12 hours per week
Dr. Jean Beauchamp worked an average of one hour per week, according to CEMC’s 990 tax filing, earning $25,050 in the most recent fiscal year. That’s $481 per hour.
“I’d really like that one hour a week job. Can I apply for that? I’d really like to do that,” said Young.
State Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, is a member of Cumberland Electric.
“It surprised me and some of these people are my friends,” said Roberts. “They get paid more than I get paid as a senator. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Roberts wants electric cooperatives to have more transparency about their salaries and spending.
CEMC board members are paid nearly double the national average. CEMC’s average pay for board members is $29,350. The national average, according to the electric co-op’s trade organization, is $15,080.
Board members at Cumberland Electric earned nearly twice as much per hour as board members at Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, even though MTEMC serves twice as many households.
The I-Team calculated the average pay per hour and found CEMC board members earning $111.84 per hour. Middle Tennessee Electric board members average board members averaged $56.63 per hour.
At a smaller Volunteer Energy Cooperative, which serves areas of Cumberland, Fentress, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties in Middle Tennessee, board members averaged $21.22 per hour.
Nashville Electric Service is not a cooperative. It is owned by the city of Nashville. NES board members do not get paid.
Cumberland Electric’s board members overall earned more for fiscal year 2017 than the year before.
“Some of them are higher because they’ve been taking trips,” said Tommy Whittaker, president of Cumberland Electric’s board.
Whittaker said the board attended more training than usual in order to learn more about the possibility of providing broadband service to its members.
Board members who complete training classes earn a higher per diem.
“We encourage board members to reach a certain level of certification,” said Whittaker. “We compensate them more if they take the time to do the training classes.
“I guess if you’re an outsider, you have people looking at ‘They are just going to conferences, having a big time,’ but what’s actually happening is they are trying to learn about broadband and issues like that.”
Davis told the I-Team that board members are asked to approve budgets on things like growth, substations and construction of distribution lines.
“We feel like we have to educate them the best we can and they have to make hard decisions,” said Davis.
The total budget for CEMC’s board, according to Davis, is about $500,000 a year.
It’s money that comes from electric customers like Young, money she thinks could help families who struggle to pay their monthly bills.
“They could put it in a fund for people who need help,” said Young.