Whidbey PUD backers host forum in Freeland

The Whidbey Island group working to take over Puget Sound Energy’s power system on Whidbey is holding a public forum today in Freeland.

“People For Yes on Whidbey PUD” want to form a public utility district on the island. In order to get the issue on the ballot this fall they have to collect and submit enough signatures to the county auditor by early July.

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. PSE currently serves Whidbey and more than 1 million electric customers in 11 counties.

“We will present the facts as spelled out in [state law] on what is entailed in this undertaking,” said Ed Jenkins, a spokesman for the group.

“Dropping PSE and forming our own not-for-profit PUD could be one of the biggest financial decisions you will make. You need to be informed and know the real facts to make a wise decision in November,” he said.

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.

Jenkins said the group is approaching its goal.

“People For Yes on Whidbey PUD is very close to having the required number of signatures to qualify for the November ballot and encourage everyone to look for petition locations and make sure Whidbey Island has a choice for power come November,” he said.

The group has invited experts from other counties, including Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, Dan Peterson, commissioner of Pend Oreille County PUD, Robbie Robertson, commissioner of Skagit County PUD and Bob Geddes, general manager of Pend Oreille County PUD.

The group has also invited a number of local politicians to the forum.

The idea for forming an organization that’s independent from PSE was born during the winter storms two years ago that caused a number of lengthy blackouts. The group hopes that local control will not only lower rates, but also allow for improved maintenance and emergency response.

“This is a grassroots, community effort that has no political interests — just the lowest electrical rates for our island,” Jenkins said.

The group has said that PSE has delivered less than satisfactory service in recent history and new development may make things worse.

In December, 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 increase would make PSE’s rates the highest in the state.

“You have a choice: PSE’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude and the highest rates in Washington spiraling out of control, or a local PUD that operates at cost with no need to tack on huge profits for foreign investors?” Jenkins asked.

“PSE, whose attitude toward green is passing out free CFLs, or a local PUD that we decide just how green we want to be?”

“We all have been caught off guard by spiraling gas and food prices. Don’t take a wait-and-see stance only to be forced to choose between heating your house and buying groceries if this opportunity passes,” he added.

However, a PUD wouldn’t be free. A local PUD would raise property taxes for roughly two years to get the district up and running and then it would be self-sustaining, the activists have said. They have not yet said how much starting the PUD would cost.

Another development is looming that has local activists concerned.

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

Last week, state lawyers hired to represent the public interest have asked the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to reject the proposed sale of Puget Sound Energy to the foreign-based Macquarie consortium.

The lawyers said the sale should be rejected because the transaction needs substantial amounts of debt financing, including $1.6 billion of new bank debt that would be added to PSE’s $2.6 billion of existing debt.

Those attorneys also said the sale does not balance the interests of ratepayers and shareholders, and said ratepayers will get no direct benefit from the sale but would shoulder the additional financial risk associated with the transaction.

Further, they warned the sale would make PSE a privately-held company and annual financial information would no longer be available to the public.

The company filed the request last December and wants it approved by September. The transaction is valued at $7.4 billion.

Whidbey’s PUD supporters said they were both “elated and dismayed” at last week’s recommendations.

“Both departments, with no vested interest except to serve the best interests of the rate payers of PSE as well as the citizens of all Washington, overwhelmingly said no to the sale of PSE to Macquarie,” Jenkins said. “This was the good news that mirrored the overwhelming opposition from ratepayers to the sale.”

“The bad news is that after talking to a WUTC staff person Friday we were told that despite unanimous evidence against, the three commissioners probably would approve the sale,” Jenkins said.

“It seems the commissioners, politically appointed, are more afraid of the lawsuits promised by PSE if the sale is denied, than the certain lawsuits that will be filed by concerned citizens groups if approved.”

He added Citizens for Local Power will file a writ of mandamus against the commission and a motion for a hold on the sale until the matter is settled.

The forum is tonight at 7 p.m. in the community hall at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

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