by Paul Bowers
The Board of Commissioners of the Charleston Water System will meet Tuesday at 9 a.m. at 103 St. Philip St. in downtown Charleston. The meeting is open to the public, and there will be an opportunity for public comments.
On New Year's Eve, Charleston Water System CEO Kin Hill sent an e-mail to board members saying that the public utility planned to meet with private warranty company HomeServe USA to "improve the perceptions of their future mailing to our customers." He was referring to a deal wherein HomeServe promised to give the utility $120,000 and a 12-percent commission in exchange for the right to use the utility's logo on mailed solicitations for warranties on residential exterior water service lines.
The HomeServe marketing contract does not appear on this Tuesday's meeting agenda, but at least one member of the utility board, Charleston City Councilman Dean Riegel, has expressed reservations about the propriety of loaning a public body's logo for marketing purposes.
HomeServe USA has had a rocky relationship with government officials and public utilities in the past. Four state attorneys general and one Native American tribal attorney general have censured the company for its marketing practices. Local officials around the country have issued warnings that HomeServe is not affiliated with their utility and, in some cases, that the warranty service is largely unnecessary.
After taking heat from attorneys general in 2010 and 2011, HomeServe USA started donating to the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) in 2012. The company has since funneled a combined $75,000 into the coffers of the DAGA and the Republican Attorneys General Association, tax-exempt organizations that help fund attorney general campaigns and allow donors to meet with AGs at their national meetings. HomeServe has also started paying public utilities for marketing agreements, entering more than 50 partnerships with utilities including CWS and the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.
HomeServe USA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.K. company HomeServe plc, which sells similar service plans overseas. In a recent profile of HomeServe CEO Richard Harpin, the Birmingham Post noted that "HomeServe is seeing its policy of targeting the U.S. market paying off" after an announced £5 million investment (about $7.5 million) in U.S. operations in November. The report states that U.S. customer numbers "have increased by more than 20 per cent to 1.7 million following the signing of six utility partners, including an agreement with AARP," formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.