Retiring utility director cites improved safety as accomplishment
By Steve Short
When lights come on at the flick of a switch, or water pours at the turn of a faucet, we might forget about the people working every day to assure those conveniences are provided.
In Milan for the past 19 years, the man who bore the biggest responsibility for utility services was David Scarbrough, superintendent of Milan Public Utilities.
January 31 was Scarbrough’s last day on the job. He had announced his plans for retirement months ago. He was succeeded by former City Recorder Jason Griggs.
Asked about MPU’s accomplishments during his near two-decade tenure, Mr. Scarbrough cited ongoing efforts to improve safety.
“MPU’s biggest accomplishment is providing the training and emphasis on safety to send all home at the end of the day – safe,” Mr. Scarbrough said.
The biggest challenges for utility employees are problems caused by severe weather, said Scarbrough. “The worst feeling is for employees to go home exhausted during major weather events and leave customers without electricity,” he said. “Thankfully, that is rare.”
Under Scarbrough’s leadership, Milan Public Utilities earned national distinction for outstanding operations. MPU earned “Tree Line USA” status from the Arbor Day Foundation for adopting policies to protect trees. Only 14 utility firms in Tennessee qualified for Tree Line status, which recognizes utility providers that demonstrate practices to protect and enhance urban forests.
In 2013, MPU’s Electric Dept. earned the “Reliable Public Power Provider” (RP3) award from the American Public Power Assoc. Only 184 of the nation’s more than 2,000 public power utilities earned the RP3 recognition for providing consumers with the highest degree of reliable and safe electric service.
Mr. Scarbrough credited MPU employees for making the department exceptional.
“Our water and sewer plants consistently receive the highest scores available for operations,” he said. “Our sewer system has received around three million dollars in grants for upgrades. The electric system is honored with the Rp3 award from the American Public Power Association for reliability. TVA grades our accounting department, and they receive the highest score available. MPU annually budgets capital improvements in all three departments (electric, water and sewer). If you’re not improving, you’re going backwards. Great employees make these things happen!”
In addition to his MPU management duties, Mr. Scarbrough held leadership roles on the West Tenn. Industrial Assoc. Executive Committee and the Central Service Assoc. Board of Directors. WTIA provides information, site locations and support for firms looking to expand or relocate. Central Service Assoc., a nonprofit group, helps utility firms improve areas such as office workflow, productivity and security.
“David is a man of integrity and knowledge, and he created good will for the city of Milan,” said veteran Alderman Jack Cunningham about Scarbrough. “He was good for the community. He came at a time when we really needed somebody.”
“He did a lot for our board in bringing us the information we needed,” added Mr. Cunningham. “He would mail stuff to us about the utility department all the time. He would also make things right for customers. He was real nice to people.”
In recent decades, Milan’s utility department faced challenges due to economic recession and job losses.
“Those things had a big effect on the city of Milan, because of industries not using utilities like they used to,” said Cunningham. “But David would be very slow about raising utility rates. TVA would raise their rates, but we wouldn’t raise ours. David would always tell you why when we had to raise our rates. And he would bring things in under budget. He did a good job with that.”
Asked about future challenges for Milan Public Utilities, Mr. Scarbrough said, “Eroding revenue from declining sales is an industry wide problem and continues as MPU’s main challenge. Changes from TVA in wholesale rate design will soon address this issue, with more emphasis on fixed cost rather than the variable of energy use. Out of every dollar we collect, 82 cents goes to TVA for wholesale cost.”
Scarbrough’s career in public utilities spanned 48 years. He grew up in Lenoir City near Knoxville. While he was attending the Univ. of Tennessee at Knoxville and working part-time in a men’s clothing store, a family friend offered him a job at a local power company. He rose in the ranks to a job in the accounting department, and subsequent positions as Office Manager, Administrative Assistant to General Manager, and Interim General Manager. He then moved to north Alabama and worked as General Manager of a local power company for eight years prior to coming to Milan.
What are the biggest changes he’s witnessed in the utility industry? “Changes in utility service over the years have brought better equipment, material and more automation,” said Mr. Scarbrough. “There have also been ever increasing regulations in water, sewer, and electricity and a greater emphasis on safety. Opportunities for training and continued education have advanced significantly.”
Asked about his personal plans for the future, Mr. Scarbrough said, “Retirement brings more opportunity for travel, reading, golf and who knows what else.”
Mr. Scarbrough and his wife, Lynn have a blended family of five children and five grandchildren.