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Move starts to form PUD

Activists want local control of power company

A new South End movement wants power for the people — quite literally.

Bob Kuehn and David Metheny of Clinton are leading an effort to form a public utility district and become responsible for electrical power on Whidbey Island. They and a number of other like-minded activists have formed “People for YES on Whidbey PUD.”

The group began a petition drive earlier this week to get a measure on the ballot for the general election this November. Island voters would decide if they want to locally control their energy supply and maintenance, or if they want to continue to be served by Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest electric and natural gas utility that currently serves Whidbey and more than 1 million electric customers in 11 counties.

The group needs 2,392 signatures from registered voters living on the island, or 10 percent of all registered voters, by July 4 to get the issue added to the ballots.

Within just a few days, Kuehn and Metheny had collected more than 100 signatures supporting a future Whidbey PUD.

The seed for the idea was planted two years ago, when South Enders repeatedly spent several days without power after being hit by multiple winter storms.

“I was on the horn with PSE constantly. ‘Hey, my dad is an older guy. When is the power coming back?’” Metheny recalled. “One of their agents was a bit snarky. She said, ‘Why don’t you form a PUD?’”

“That stuck in my head,” Metheny said.

Recently, he became aware of another frustrated PSE customer when he read a letter to the editor in The Record written by Kuehn. Metheny thumbed through the phonebook and called Kuehn.

Within weeks, they organized their efforts.

The men said they are prepared for a struggle over territory with Puget Sound Energy. The power company is notorious for fighting PUDs with public relations campaigns and litigation since 1931.

But Kuehn and Metheny aren’t intimidated.

Metheny recalled an effort in Port Townsend to start a public utilities district.

“When Puget Sound Energy got wind of it, they sent their lawyers and threatened litigation,” he said.

“PR and lawyers have been their tactics,” Metheny said. “But the thing, from beginning to end, is guided by state law.”

Rate hike possible

Kuehn and Metheny said it’s a good time to start the effort. The power company is busy fighting multiple other PUD initiatives, is applying for a rate hike and a deal to sell the utility is pending.

In December 2007, PSE asked the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission for approval to collect additional revenues of $174.5 million for electric customers and

$56.7 million for natural gas customers. If approved, the utility estimates an average residential customer would see electric rates increase about 12 percent or about

$10.48 a month. PSE is requesting a $3 increase in the basic monthly charge for electricity customers.

The company is also proposing to raise the basic monthly natural gas charge from $8.25 to $18, while reducing the average rate per therm of gas consumed from 31 to 23.7 cents. The net effect of the proposal is that a typical residential natural-gas bill would rise by about 6 percent or about $4.60 a month.

The increase would make PSE’s rates the highest in the state.

“We don’t want to sit on the island and pay the highest rates in the state,” Kuehn said.

Puget Sound Energy has also requested the commission approve the sale of the electric and gas utility to an investor group from Australia, Canada and the United States.

The company filed the request last December, and the transaction is valued at $7.4 billion. PSE has asked the commission for purchase approval by Sept. 2.

Metheny said, if approved, the sale could be bad news for the island.

“The company will likely be sold to international investors. They are not going to care about our next storm or cleaning up after it,” Metheny said.

Neither proposal is very popular with customers.

The commission has received 1,513 public comments to date on the proposed merger: 20 in favor, 48 undecided and 1,445 opposed. The commission also has received about 2,854 public comments on the rate-hike request — 27 in favor, 73 undecided and 2,754 opposed.

Non-partisan issue

The pair said they believe the island would be better off with locally controlled power and hope to gain support from business owners and the community.

“We need the support of Republicans. We need the support of Democrats,” Metheny said.

“It’s certainly not a partisan issue,” Kuehn added.

Kuehn said Whidbey Telecom is a great example that a local alternative to big utility companies can work.

Forming a PUD won’t come cheap. Metheny said the lion’s share to get the project off the ground would have to come from a tax increase.

PUDs have taxing authority, he said. Usually, the districts will take advantage of bond or levy power for two to three years, he added.

“They utilize their taxing authority to prime the pump,” Metheny said.

Local control

It generally generates enough money to get the prep work done and personnel hired. Then staff and maintenance is paid from revenue, he said.

PUDs are nonprofit organizations and often generate enough revenue to allow for lower rates for customers. A PUD is under local control and governed by an elected board of commissioners.

“Long term, we would be better served by a PUD,” Metheny said. “It’s designed to serve the people.”

It’s also controlled by the people. Metheny added that a local body could decide that maintenance crews would have to live in the coverage area, so people wouldn’t sit in the dark waiting for crews to arrive like many did during the 2006/07 winter storms.

Fading memory

Even though South Enders’ interest in such issues as undergrounding powerlines and alternative sources of power has dwindled after the recent mild winter, the men said in face of global climate change, power line-snapping winter storms aren’t a thing of the past. And there is no alternative power source to keep warm on South Whidbey.

When the large back-up generator from Langley was sold several years ago, the South End was left with no back-up power.

“There is nothing here. We are energy generator-naked on this island,” Metheny said.

Commissioners would have to answer to voters, they added.

“We’d have a local office who would be more responsive,” Kuehn said.

Issues such as conservation, which is well-supported on the “green-minded” South End, could be a local priority, they said.

Metheny said the PUD would also boost the local economy.

“It’s about economic development. It could provide 50 good-paying jobs,” Metheny said. “The idea is to take control of this part of our economy and recycle it back into our community,” he added.

That PUDs are a workable alternative is supported by the success of other independent districts.

Hitting the streets

“PUDs have a long history in this state,” Metheny said.

There are 28 PUDs currently operating in Washington, Kuehn added.

This weekend, the group is kicking their signature drive into full gear.

Metheny said they will hit the farmers markets, the ferry terminals and the Freeland Harborside Parade. They will have volunteers canvassing shopping centers between Oak Harbor and Clinton.

“I am confident we will collect enough to get it on the ballot in November,” Metheny said.

Comment period

Meanwhile, customers of Puget Sound Energy will be able to comment to state officials on the utility’s proposed merger and the request to increase electricity and natural gas rates at three public meetings in May and June.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission has scheduled three public meetings to hear utility customers’ views;

• 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 15 at Bellevue Community College, Room 130 B, 3000 Landerholm Circle SE, Bellevue;

• Tuesday, May 20 at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center, 315 Halleck St., Bellingham; and

• Wednesday, June 4 at the Richard Hemstad Building, second-floor hearing room, 1300 S. Evergreen Park Drive SW, Olympia.

Customer comments made in Bellevue, Bellingham and Olympia will be made part of the official record in the case.

In addition, the commission staff is hosting a less formal, informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 28 in the Madrona Room of the Woodinville Community Center/Carol Edwards Center, 17401 133rd Ave. NE, Woodinville.

State utility commission staff members, representatives from the company and the Public Counsel Section of the Attorney General’s Office will attend. Customers are welcome to ask questions but only written comments can be included in the legal record for each case.

Customers who wish to comment on PSE’s proposed merger or rate-hike proposal can direct their correspondence to: PO Box 47250 Olympia, WA 98504 or e-mail at comments@utc.wa.gov. Comment forms also will be available at the Woodinville meeting.

Recommendations to the commission from all parties are due May 30 on the rate case and June 18 for the merger proposal. The commission will make a final decision in November.

To learn more about “People for YES on Whidbey PUD,” call 360-929-1690, e-mail info@ whidbeypud.org or visit www.whidbeypud.org.

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