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Roseville Electric's first female director marks five months on the job

Michelle Bertolino is the first woman to lead the utility since it formed 98 years ago
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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In five months on the job, Roseville Electric Director Michelle Bertolino has had her hands full. She oversees 130 employees and a $180 million budget, and has been tasked with figuring out ways to cut costs and balance the utility’s finances. For the last four years, the utility has dipped into savings to cover costs. The director recently confirmed to the Roseville City Council a less-than-popular decision that a third rate increase is needed to match the utility’s revenues and expenses. The Council passed the rate proposal in September 2009 to help alleviate a projected $98 million shortfall by 2014. The previous two rate adjustments, at 6.2 percent each, have allowed Roseville Electric to rebuild reserves. “It’s been very, very busy,” Bertolino said. “But it’s going well.” Despite the struggles, the local utility received good news in March with recognition by the American Public Power Association as one of the most reliable utilities in the United States. Only 154 of the more than 2,000 public power utilities in the country have earned this designation. Roseville Electric also went 12 months without an accident, which Bertolino calls “quite an accomplishment” considering employees operate power plants, climb poles and work with energized equipment. In May, the utility achieved another milestone by promoting Bertolino, 50, to director, which marks the first time in Roseville Electric’s 98-year history that a woman has headed the establishment. She replaced Tom Habashi, who retired in December 2009, and earns an annual salary of $171,712. Derrick Whitehead, Environmental Utilities Director for the City of Roseville, has worked with Bertolino since 2002. “She’s very collaborative and has great insight into utility operations,” Whitehead said. “She brings a breath of fresh air (and) does what it takes to get the job done.” Raised in the Bay Area, Bertolino graduated from high school in Sunnyvale. Her parents now live in Sun City and her sister lives in Loomis. The “extremely close” family visits one another at least once a week, she said. Bertolino and her husband, Jon, also have two sons. She joined Roseville Electric about eight years ago, after working at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and later at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District for six years. At Roseville Electric, she’s been responsible for the administrative and retail energy services business unit. She also managed the distribution business unit, covering electric operations, construction, maintenance, engineering and dispatch services. Now she’s in charge of the utility, which serves 53,000 customers and owns and operates a 160-megawatt natural gas electric generation plant. Roseville City Councilwoman Carol Garcia said Bertolino has the knowledge, good sense and keen eye to improve Roseville Electric. Garcia, a former Roseville Public Utilities commissioner, now serves on the Northern California Power Agency commission. “She’s done a terrific job,” Garcia said. “These are tough times for public utilities up and down the state and across the nation. We still provide low rates and (high) reliability, which are two important factors for ratepayers. We’re lucky to have her.” Early in her career, Bertolino was often the only woman in a boardroom of executives. “There aren’t a lot of women in the electric utility business,” she said. “We’re (still) the minority. I think having a balance of women and men brings different perspectives. We look at things differently but we all have the same goal, which is to provide the best electric service at the best rate. So at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.” Offering the best rate has become a battle for California utilities lately as they experience revenue loss and unfunded legislative mandates pile up on top of other volatile factors, such as fluctuating gas and electric prices, hydroelectric availability and the economic crisis. “It’s a challenging time right now,” Bertolino said. Her staff is increasing their load research to better predict customers’ electric uses and figuring out the most cost-effective ways to comply with the laws. Roseville Electric’s rates remain among the lowest in the state. “We have a really, really good staff,” Bertolino said. “They take their job to heart and they’re really proud that they work here.” She tries to promote an enjoyable work environment — on a recent morning, senior staff arrived at the office at 6 a.m. to prepare a pancake breakfast as a reward for the utility earning a high-service level and reliability award. On the weekends, the Granite Bay resident enjoys skiing and practicing golf with her 17-year-old son. She’s in a ladies book club — “We don’t talk about the book much” — and volunteers for Project Birthday, a nonprofit group that hosts parties for homeless kids once a month at a Sacramento shelter. “My predecessor told me, ‘If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong,’” Bertolino said. “And I remember that every day.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com.