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Benton PUD Candidates Talk Rates

by Annette Cary
Tri-City Herald, October 22, 2012

Robert Bertsch is running for re-election to the Benton PUD Commission based on the sound and efficient financial management he says he helped provide the district.

After he joined the commission, rates were lowered each year from 2005 to 2009, he said.

His opponent, Barry Bush, 45, says he can bring a fresh voice to the commission and his experience as a former employee for several years at Energy Northwest. As an energy services representative he met with PUDs and other power organizations in the Northwest to sell wind and other new Energy Northwest power generation.

He was working for Energy Northwest when Initiative 937 was passed in 2006 by Washington voters, and he saw how frustrated PUDs were with it, he said. They knew promises that power rates would go down were not true and that in fact they would go up, he said.

The initiative requires most PUDs to buy a growing percentage of their power from qualified renewable sources, such as wind and solar, which are more expensive than hydropower. Most hydropower cannot be used to meet the quota.

He favors changing the Energy Independence Act, which resulted from the initiative, to allow all hydropower to qualify as renewable, he said. He'd use his contacts to work with the Washington PUD Association and the Northwest Public Power Association on the issue, he said.

If efforts to persuade the Legislature to change the law concerning hydropower continue to be unsuccessful, Bush would like to see a new initiative on the ballot to clarify that all hydropower be considered an eligible renewable, he said. An initiative could be successful as ratepayers see their electric bills increase, he said.

Benton PUD is one of the most respected in the region, Bush said, based on his work at Energy Northwest. But three commissioners are making decisions key to the lives of all Benton PUD ratepayers and a five-person commission might make more sense, he said.

Bush also questions the PUD's involvement in broadband service, including how that fits in with its mission to provide electricity, he said. He's an advocate of free enterprise and government should not be providing services if businesses could, he said.

He also criticized the rates charged by Benton PUD in his statement in the state voter guide. Lowering rates would be his top objective, he said.

Bertsch, 66, said that since he joined the PUD seven years ago rates have been below the median and average rates of Northwest utilities using Bonneville Power Administration power. In addition, Benton PUD's bond rating is the highest in its history, which gives the PUD access to lower rates when it needs to raise capital.

Benton PUD has invested in an automated metering infrastructure which has reduced costs and will increase efficiency for many years to come, he said.

Bertsch favors the tactics of a new community-wide coalition working to delay Initiative 937 requirements.

Citizens for POWER is proposing legislation that would free utilities from buying additional and unneeded power from qualified renewable sources if they already have enough power under contract. POWER has said it's an approach with a realistic chance of winning legislative approval after efforts to make hydropower a qualified renewable under the Energy Independence Act have not advanced in the Legislature.

Benton PUD now is in compliance with the requirements of the initiative through 2015, Bertsch said.

Benton PUD has worked to extend the broadband infrastructure to areas it provides electricity, he said. That infrastructure allows private internet service providers to sell their service, including in rural communities that have not had access to modern internet service for schools and medical clinics, he said.

Bertsch owns a construction business and was a founding director of Community First Bank, giving him an understanding of how utility rates affect not only homeowners, but also business owners, he said. He has served on numerous boards, not only related to power, but also for the Tri-Cities Chaplaincy, Grace Clinic and Benton and Franklin Counties Workforce Development Council.

Both candidates live in Kennewick and are running for the District 3 position. The commissioner position by state law pays $1,800 a month plus per diem. The term is for six years.

Annette Cary
Benton PUD Candidates Talk Rates
Tri-City Herald, October 22, 2012

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