The NRECA board of directors approved a $256 million budget for the organization in 2018 at its winter meeting and outlined plans to support members’ needs in the crucial areas of regulation, broadband and cybersecurity.

NRECA President Phil Carson outlined a "strategic partnership" with NRECA management to "promote, support and protect the community and business interests of electric cooperatives."

Vice President Curtis Wynn praised CEO Jim Matheson and NRECA leadership for a series of sit-downs they held with state delegations during this year's slate of regional meetings.

"The trust we build with our members and lawmakers and all the other stakeholders gives us the social currency that grants us the moral license to operate," he said.

"Those small-group face-to-face conversations tell me a lot about our diverse points of view on some of the most challenging issues we face," Matheson told the board, which met in Arlington, Virginia, from Dec. 4 to 7. "Unity among co-ops is exceptionally important as we advocate for our diverse member interests."

The association's budget for 2018 projects revenues of $256 million and expenses of $255.6 million, both about half of a percentage point below 2017.

Martin Lowery, executive vice president for member and association relations, announced that beginning in May 2018, he will transition to a part-time contract role after a 35-year career at NRECA.

Lowery will continue to represent NRECA and U.S. cooperatives on the International Cooperative Alliance board of directors, to which he was recently re-elected, and on the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition board. Lowery also will work on special projects, Matheson said.

"NRECA is truly a great organization primarily because co-ops are truly great organizations," said Lowery, who was inducted into the U.S. Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2014. "Anyone who understands our construct and purpose is captivated. I look forward to staying involved."

NRECA COO Jeffrey Connor briefed the board on the findings of a 2017 member engagement survey of co-op CEOs and general managers. Connor said key takeaways include a desire for NRECA to understand each co-op's unique circumstances and challenges and that CEOs appreciate one-on-one communication with NRECA leadership.

More than 500 leaders responded to the survey, and 96 percent said their co-op participated in at least one NRECA event in 2017. Tenures of those surveyed ranged from two months to 52 years.

"We still have a strongly engaged membership driven by benefits and advocacy," said Connor, adding that more than half the respondents "feel NRECA is an excellent or very good value of membership."

New challenges listed by the co-op leaders include cybersecurity and broadband, he added.

USDA Advocates Rural Broadband

Two U.S. Department of Agriculture officials addressed the board and discussed the determination of Secretary Sonny Perdue to boost the rural economy through broadband, infrastructure and partnerships.

Anne Hazlett, assistant to the secretary for rural development, said the department is looking at better ways to coordinate on broadband, including supporting co-op efforts and removing barriers to progress. "The secretary truly believes that this is the 'electricity of the modern age,'" she said.

Perdue's top priority for rural America is infrastructure, which is "a necessity for economic opportunity in all communities, regardless of ZIP code," she said.

"NRECA has been a long advocate, many of you have been a long advocate, for a robust business climate, whether it's here in Washington or at that local level," Hazlett said. "We want to continue to be a partner with you in that."

Jannine Miller, senior adviser to Perdue, said the secretary is concerned about the decline in the country's rural population and sees broadband deployment as key to improving the rural economy.

In other board action, Barry Bernstein was introduced and seated as the new NRECA Vermont director. Bernstein is president and director at Washington Electric Cooperative in East Montpelier. Fred Nelson, director of Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, Portola, California, and Gene Herritt, director, Adams Electric Cooperative, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were introduced as directors-elect and will be seated on the board at the 2018 Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ron Schwartau, NRECA Minnesota director and president of Nobles Cooperative Electric, updated the board on NRECA International activities, including planned electrification projects in Colombia and in Malawi in southeastern Africa.

Tracey Steiner, NRECA senior vice president, education and training, and Eric Commodore, director of meeting and events, briefed the board on the 2018 annual meeting and TechAdvantage Conference and Expo Feb. 25-28 in Nashville. Meeting activities will take place at the Nashville Music City Center. To date registrations of nearly 4,000 are on target with past annual meetings in Nashville, Steiner said.

Lisa Johnson, CEO and general manager of Seminole Electric Cooperative and president of the G&T Managers Association, briefed the board on top priorities for G&Ts: federal regulation; cybersecurity; distributed generation; electricity markets; RUS; operational excellence; and load growth.

"This is a good sample of what is on the minds of G&Ts," said Johnson, noting that NRECA is already taking on many of these priorities. "As our industry continues to change, G&Ts are evolving with it. Advocacy of sound, thoughtful policy is so important."

Jessica Nelson, NRECA California director and CEO and general manager of Golden State Power and a member of the Rural Electric Statewide Managers Association, discussed a project to catalogue services and the need to share information among statewides.

Greg Santoro, a senior vice president at the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, told the board that fiber is the only "future-proof" technology when it comes to building the backbone for rural broadband. "There is no end in sight of what fiber can support," he said.