PUD Candidates Try to
by Marissa Luck
There's not much the Cowlitz PUD can do to stop future rate increases, but candidates to replace long-time utility commissioner Ned Piper discussed some proposals to do so Sunday at a League of Women Voter's candidate forum.
The PUD buys 90 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that markets power. When Bonneville hikes rates, those are passed onto Cowlitz PUD customers, leaving the utility with little control over increases. BPA's power, most of which comes from hydroelectric dams, is by far the cheapest in the region.
Still, PUD candidate Dan Clark, a retired carpenter, said he has a bone to pick with Bonneville.
"Bonneville just seems to be a hungry bear. It wants more. It never stops eating, and we are at the bottom of the pit," Clark said.
Clark did not offer specifics, but said he supports the PUD's new general manager, Steve Kern, in his attempts to work with Bonneville in controlling power costs.
Candidate Mike Kayser, a Castle Rock chicken farmer, argued there is little to be done to prevent future rate hikes. At the same time, he suggested that BPA examine hidden costs that are passed onto customers, such as funding fish conservation.
"I don't want to kill all the fish ... but I would think we would want to spend our money wisely as we're trying to save the fish," Kayser said.
A boost in public participation and lobbying the agency also could help, Kayser added.
Candidate Dave Quinn, who has worked for multiple utilities including Cowlitz PUD, suggested building a coalition of utilities to affect larger public policies and lobby Bonneville together. The Cowlitz PUD is already involved in agencies like this, such as the Public Power Council. However, Quinn suggested after the forum that the utility take a more active role in those organizations.
"I've had a great deal of experience in the way utilities work. Many utilities face the same problems, and a lot of them solve them in different ways," Quinn said. "We need to pay attention to how they solve those problems."
Boosting cost efficiencies could also help, Quinn suggested, although he admitted that operating costs account for only a relatively small portion of the utility's budget. Power purchases are by far the largest.
PUD residential rates have increased 50 percent over the last decade, but they still are among the lowest in the country.
A fourth candidate, Lonnie Knowles, was not at the forum, which attended by about 25 people at the Cowlitz County Administration Building in Kelso. The other three candidates did not have any major disagreements. But Kayser and Clark did differ on the role of the elected commissioners in the agency.
Clark called for commissioners to have a more hands-on role, even suggesting the utility hire a commissioner to work full time at the agency. Kayser said the commissioners should steer the agency on wider issues but avoid micromanagement (to which Clark answered that he wasn't in favor of micro management either.)
Both Kayser and Quinn also agreed that the board needed to continue working on building unity again after turmoil from the censure and failed recall attempt of Piper.
"The dysfunction of the board has taken away the board's ability to do its function," Quinn said.
"The board has to get along, and I don't just mean put on smiley face and pretend to get along ... you can have your arguments, but at the end of the day you need to walk out of the room with a unified force," Kayser added.
Converserely, Clark also said he hadn't noticed any board in-fighting in his last few years of involvement on the utility's citizen advisory committee.
In a statement read aloud by County Commissioner Dennis Weber at the beginning of the forum, Knowles also hinted at the idea of board reform.
"We need to ensure there are checks and balances are in place so the question of personal gain and undue influence that have been raised are eliminated and that our citizens are comfortable with our process and no longer feel the need to bring legal actions," Knowles wrote.
Knowles also said he sought office "to bring unity and transparency and to facilitate cooperation on all sides."
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