PUD Directs Rate Hike Ire
by Steven Friederich
The signs posted in and around the gym at Aberdeen High School read "Let's get fired up!"
They were meant for high school pep rallies, but the Grays Harbor PUD could very well have adopted the slogan, as PUD Commissioner Tom Casey and other public utility officials sought to drive any anger residents feel about a potential 4 percent rate hike to the Bonneville Power Administration.
More than 100 people turned out at Sam Benn Gymnasium last night for a PUD briefing on a proposed 4 percent increase in electric rates, which would amount to about $3.35 per month for the average household. Casey said the PUD's rate increase will likely go in effect in the next month or so.
"Let them know you have knowledge that this rate increase is unnecessary," Casey said, pacing back and forth across the gym floor, facing the crowd sitting in the bleachers.
"Tell them you're tired of paying subsidies for aluminum and private utilities," Casey said, clenching his fist. "They know what that's about. You don't have to explain a lot of detail to them."
The BPA, a federal agency that sells electricity to power companies and public utilities in the Northwest, wants to raise the amount it charges by 9.4 percent, although the increase could go as high as 25 percent.
Casey and PUD General Manager Rick Lovely say that for years, the federal agency has withheld millions of dollars in public utility money to subsidize private power. It's something the Grays Harbor PUD feels so passionately about, it's taken its case to federal court repeatedly, has even won its cases, but still the subsidies occur. Casey often writes about it in the PUD newsletter and will talk anyone's ear off about it if given the time.
The PUD brings attention to it on monthly bills to customers, specifically pointing out the 7 percent energy charge that gets sent to private utilities.
"Can't you just tell them to piss off? We're not going to pay?" Aberdeen City Councilman James Cook asked Casey.
Casey said that would violate contracts and the federal governments would likely step in and force the PUD's hand for a rate increase, anyway.
For the most part, the audience last night was receptive to the argument that Bonneville is the main driver of the PUD's proposed rate hike. Attendees asked for "cheat sheets" to help them write letters to Bonneville so they could get their facts right. They asked for phone numbers and addresses of congressmen, the governor and those at BPA so they could sound off.
But the utility district also faced some difficult questions
Central Park resident Rich Easterly asked about the PUD's timing of building a $2 million information technology center on the site of the old Suzie's bakery next door to the PUD building.
Aberdeen resident Sally Sheldon echoed those thoughts, "There's a right time and a wrong time. Do you think this is the right time?"
PUD Commissioner Russ Skolrood said if he could take the $2 million planned for the information technology center and use it to reduce rates, he would. But the money comes from a construction-related bond and can't be used for operational expenses.
"I think the building's needed," Skolrood concluded. "I don't think it's a waste of money. I think it's a capital expenditure that we had the money raised in 2006 and we have to spend it.
"Now if you want me to do the easy thing, I'll tell them to go put some lines and poles on some back road where nobody's going to say a darn word. That's easy. Tearing down a building on the main drag and building a $2 million building, that's politically stupid right now. But it's the right thing."
Aberdeen resident Stan Blunt asked if the PUD would consider reductions in employee hours, wages or even layoffs to help keep the rate hike to a minimum.
Westport resident Ray Brown noted that the PUD's new service connections have dropped by two-thirds and "any business or utility charged with acting like a business would look at that drop and be taking a serious look at staffing levels."
"What are we doing right now to play the game a little bit?" Blunt added.
"I'm not going after employees because BPA is pursuing bad policy," Casey said. "I'm not doing that. Throw me out if you want. I'm not going after employees of the PUD. Been there. I could be like Forrest Gump and show you my war wounds, but I'm not doing that again."
Lovely said the PUD has asked its department heads to scrutinize its current budgets, has implemented a wage freeze for salaried employees and plans to leave some positions vacant, including a bookkeeper, an engineer, a flagger and a supervisor's post. He said the PUD will also scale back its tree trimming and power pole checking programs and reduce training and travel to a minimum.
Yet despite those cuts, the PUD's presentation Monday night showed operational expenses going up by $600,000 in 2010. Finance Director Doug Streeter said the figures presented Monday night didn't account for potential cuts under way.
Beyond the proposed 4 percent increase, which would go into effect this year, the PUD's "worst case scenario" also plans for 4 percent increases next year, 4 percent in 2011 and then a 7 percent increase in 2012.
"Two years ago when it was storming, I was so happy to get my lights," said Carleen Randich, who described herself as a retired Aberdeen widow. "So I'm not here to throw tomatoes, but what I'm thinking is that in this particular year, when you have people laid off and they're trying to live off unemployment and they have groceries to buy and they have to heat their house … is there a way to put this on hold a little while until, according to Obama, things get better?"
Streeter said he wishes there were a way, but he said if a 4 percent rate increase isn't done this year, it may turn into an 8 percent increase next year.
Deputy General Manager Doug Smith noted the PUD is also available to do energy audits to help families figure out how to save money. The audits are free. Just contact the PUD for more information.
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