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Commentaries and editorials

A Local View: Utility Should Stick to Providing Power

by Jeff Miller
Opinion, The Columbian, January 16, 2004

Salmon recovery carries costs,
but so does salmon extinction

Recently the issue of Clark Public Utilities doing appliance repair has been discussed in the media. It's about time someone explained the true scope of the problem as opposed to the myopic vision we are getting on a daily basis.

The problem of utilities getting into the heating-cooling business as well as small appliance sales and repair is a nationwide problem that has been fought for many years by a diverse group of concerned citizens. A common scenario develops as follows:

A large local utility decides for some seemingly innocent reason to start installing furnaces (in the name of energy conservation, better customer services, pure socialism, etc.). The utility has the ability to supply unlimited funds to this new enterprise by simply raising its electric or gas rates.

The utility already has the mailing list of the entire community in its computer and can advertise the new services in the same envelope with the utility bills. Of course, the new services are advertised at extremely low prices so the consumers cannot resist abandoning the local family businesses that have served them for generations.

Soon, vast amounts of customers start using the utility, and local small businesses fail or just close up because they see the writing on the wall. The utility may lose millions of dollars during this empire-building process. The program takes on a life of its own, doing whatever it wants to totally choke out all competition.

From here, things typically go one of two ways:

1. Some utilities will increase their prices to try to stop the flow of red ink created by the huge money-losing program, and of course they can because the competition is gone.

2. Other utilities finally wake up and sell off or close the money-losing operations. They find that after years of trying, the flow of subsidies to the entity can never be eliminated.

On a local level, contractors began to fight this battle back in 1997. Clark Public Utilities is currently doing the equivalent of about $2 million per year in repair and parts sales. People on limited incomes are paying for the huge losses of this program in their electric bills.

Agency out of control

If local contractors hadn't begun to protest this socialist program, the utility would be doing even more of such business and many of the family businesses would have had to close. Several have shut down already.

The Washington state attorney general and two courts of law agree with the local contractors, that CPU's repair program should be shut down as well. The Legislature refused to even consider a law to give CPU legal authority to do this.

The CPU program is simply a way for the commissioners to buy votes with ratepayer money and ease the anger of ratepayers for our horrendous electric bills.

CPU is an out-of-control government bureaucracy that was formed in order to supply us with cheap electricity. They now supply water, sewer, do fish farming, plant trees, do home and garden shows, appliance repair, sell insurance, play the commodities market and spend vast amounts on advertising and public relations.

CPU commissioners think they are above the law. Citizens of Clark County need to wake up and attend a public commissioners meeting, where you will learn why your electric bill is so high.

The CPU appliance-repair program distorts the local market. The commissioners are not qualified to be dabbling in these many industries.

CPU has spent over $40,000 of ratepayer money in legal costs to save the repair department. Why would it do that?

Meanwhile, local family businesses buried under massive taxes and regulations struggle to average a 1 percent profit per year. If a government agency took over your trade, you would be screaming louder than the local contractors currently are.

A huge labor shortage is developing in our industry because of substandard wages created by the CPU programs. Electric bills are so high because of bad decisions by the commissioners, not because of Enron or Bonneville Power Administration.

Jeff Miller, is president of a 57-year family heating and air conditioning business in Clark County.
Utility Should Stick to Providing Power
The Columbian, January 16, 2004

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