Whidbey PUD, PSE officials square off at first forum

COUPEVILLE — Puget Sound Energy and backers of creating a Whidbey Island-based electric company got a chance to pitch their case to local leaders Wednesday night at a special session of the Council of Governments at Coupeville High School.

"People For Yes on Whidbey PUD" want to take over the PSE's territory and form a locally-controlled public utility district. PSE, of course, wants to keep its 34,000 customers on the island.

The Island County Board of Commissioners, the city councils of Oak Harbor and Coupeville as well as the mayors of the two cities had come together to hear what PSE officials and PUD supporters had to say about the pros and cons of a public utility district on the island. There were no South End representatives at the gathering. Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson and the city council were absent.

The focus quickly turned to numbers.

PSE officials and their consultant Bob Bellemare of UtiliPoint International said a proposed takeover of PSE’s infrastructure on Whidbey Island would cost residents of Whidbey Island more than $130 million and lead to an average of 20 percent higher electric rates.

Whidbey PUD campaign director Dave Metheny said his group's estimates are not finalized but come in closer to $80 million to $85 million for a takeover, with projected long-term rate savings of up to 20 percent.

"People For Yes on Whidbey PUD" also plan to buy the high-voltage transmission lines and said that infrastructure was included in their figures. Bellemare said they weren't included in the estimate created for PSE, and added that could push the price tag above $200 million.

"That's not realistic at that price," Bellemare said.

PUD supporters, who worked with volunteers to come up with a preliminary cost estimate, said their latest estimate is that if voters sign off on forming a PUD during the election this November, the commissioners would impose an annual property tax increase that equates to $3.20 for a $300,000 home.

How long that tax would be in place is also unclear. Treasurer Bob Kuehn said the tax would be stopped when revenue comes in from the sale of electricity, in other words, when the PUD begins actual operation.

While PUD supporters estimate that the takeover process could take as three years, PSE officials said seven years would be more realistic.

The property tax increase would only pay for the feasibility study and early legal costs.

He said they are not asking for more because they don't want to burden taxpayers unnecessarily.

"We're being frugal. It's the taxpayer's money," Metheny said.

Bellemare criticized the group's methods.

"Something doesn't smell right about these numbers," he said.

Bellemare said that the tax increase would only be the beginning and that people soon would pay for bonds or other tax hikes to pay for the acquisition of PSE's infrastructure and other start-up costs.

One Coupeville council member warned that the PUD backers had to come up with professionally-researched analysis and firm dollar figures if they want the support of the public.

South End PUD commissioner candidate Georgia Gardner said that could wait, however. The measure needs to be approved first so there would be money for a professional study. She asked the public and the elected officials to trust the volunteer commissioners to do the right thing.

"Invest in us so we can spend no more than six months to investigate what this will cost and come back to you," she said.

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