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PUD supporters promise dollar figures next week

The supporters of an electrical public utility on Whidbey Island experienced a people palooza during its Power Palooza forum in Freeland Thursday night.

The meeting began late because helpers had to set up additional chairs in the Trinity Lutheran Church community hall to accommodate all the South Enders who showed up to ask questions about the PUD effort. Organizers said more people turned out for the Freeland meeting than the other five meetings combined. "People for Yes" has been holding events across the island in the past week to share the benefits of a Whidbey-based power company.

The measure to form a PUD and take over Puget Sound Energy's assets and infrastructure will be on the November ballot.

Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Utility Association, gave a presentation on the basics of a PUD. He stressed local control, lower rates and a positive impact on the local economy.

To support his remarks he pointed to the success of the 23 PUDs operating in Washington state.

He also tried to calm fears that a PUD would be a financial misstep.

“If you vote yes, you are not automatically in the electric business. You are authorized to be in the electric business,” Johnson said.

Puget Sound Energy, the current provider of electricity on the island, has claimed that voters would give too much power to PUD commissioners and would have virtually no say in the matter after the new commissioners are elected in November.

Johnson also stressed that voters should approve the measure if they want access to the cheap Tier 1 power provided by the Bonneville Power Administration.

“When it is gone, it will be gone for 20 years,” he said.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the room remained the elusive cost estimate for the new PUD that is expected from “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD,” the group leading the effort to create a Whidbey power company.

While PSE recently released a study that said the takeover could cost between $130 million and $200 million, PUD supporters have bounced around only vague guesstimates.

They also haven’t released how much they hope to collect from property taxes to get their feasibility study done if people approve the proposal.

Dave Metheny, the campaign director of “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD,” said the wait is over.

The group plans to release its in-house study Tuesday, Sept. 9 at The Exchange. The forum, sponsored by The South Whidbey Record and the Clinton Community Club starts at 7 p.m. at Clinton Community Hall, is open to the public.

Despite missing numbers, PUD supporters explained that, if approved, PUD commissioners can get started on research. They are likely to utilize their taxing authority for a few years before the utility has revenue from electric rates, Metheny said.

Tom Casey, a PUD commissioner from Grays Harbor, said that one of the strong points of local PUDs is that the commissioners, who are neighbors and friends of their customers, are held accountable.

“If I don’t put enough money in her pocket, she fires me,” he said. “At PSE, if I don’t put enough money out of her pocket and give it to somebody else, they fire me.”

Audience members asked what the feasibility study would cost.

Metheny said, depending on the complexity of the study, it could cost anywhere between $25,000 to $250,000.

Each PUD commissioner candidate got a chance to introduce him or herself to the public, as voters will also vote for a commissioner at the same time they cast their vote on the question of forming a PUD.

The candidates agreed that many questions remain unanswered, but that the only way to get the answers was to approve the PUD and then do a feasibility study.

South End candidate Tim Arnold, an electrical engineer with PSE experience, said if he was elected that he would make sure that islanders would get the most reliable data to learn if the PUD makes sense. To get a good data, a detailed feasibility study is necessary and it will be way more than $25,000, he said.

“I want to make sure it is the most reliable plan,” Arnold said.

“It could be very costly. Or it could be an extreme benefit to all of us on the island,” he added.

“It has to be a good business deal,” said Pat Harman, a central Whidbey candidate. “I don’t want to pay more for electricity just because we have a PUD.”

Harman, the former PUD commissioner of an Alaskan PUD, said until he has studied all the details he can’t say for certain if a PUD is a good or bad idea for Whidbey.

“I’m reserving judgement,” Harman said.

His central Whidbey opponent Brien Linnquist agreed.

“I don’t want to pay anymore taxes than anybody else,” he said.

Linnquist said one of his first priorities as a commissioner would be to hire a director or manager for the PUD.

Audience members also wanted to know how long it would be between Election Day and the day when PUD provides power to the island.

Metheny said that the commissioners would complete a feasibility study within the first six months. Then they would decide if they want to proceed.

“People for Yes on Whidbey PUD” anticipates about three years depending on the length of the condemnation proceedings to gain access to PSE's assets.

“The law allows 10 years to put a PUD in action,” Metheny said.

North Whidbey candidate Marshall Goldberg said he was running for commissioner to give the idea of a PUD a chance.

“I’m really not unlike anybody here. I have a lot of experience in flipping light switches on and off, paying my electric bill, trying to save money,” he said.

Whether a PUD would help save him money was worth exploring, he said.

He also lashed out at PSE and its campaign against the PUD measure.

The PSE-funded group, Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy, planted anti-PUD yard signs across the island this weekend.

Goldberg brought a few examples. Holding up the red yard signs he said, “This is the age of fear.”

He had also collected signs from Jefferson County, where the same political strategist firm that is behind the Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy also raised similar signs.

He had altered the signs and “corrected” some statements on the signs. In one anti-PUD sign he changed the phrase "government-controlled power" to "citizen-controlled power." The gimmick scored big with the South End audience.

“Who is the government?” he asked. “Is it us, the people?”

“I’m glad we enjoyed those red signs so much,” said Georgia Gardner, one of the candidates for the South End commissioner position. “Because your rates paid for that.”

Gardner also got her turn to introduce herself to South Enders.

“First thing you want to do is hire a good accountant,” she said.

She stressed her experience on the Blaine City Council where she helped run the local PUD and her work as a state senator. She said it could come in handy when it is time to go after state funding and grants.

Gardner said that she has worked closely with the “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD” volunteers while they developed their draft study.

“The only problem is that the numbers are a bit conservative,” she said.

While she didn’t confirm any dollar figures either, she promised the audience that the new PUD would keep the tax burden low.

“We’re going to charge you no more that $5 a year for two or three years,” she said.

After that time frame, she added, she anticipates electric rates about the same as PSE’s, and maybe lower, until the Whidbey PUD would get access to Tier 1 Bonneville power.

Gardner, too, pointed to local accountability and responsiveness.

“I have a couple of leaning trees on my property,” she said. “I’ve called PSE five times. The trees are still leaning.”

“Please vote yes on PUD and give us a chance to test the system,” she said.

After the two-hour meeting, some left still unconvinced. But a big portion of the audience marched out of the community hall armed with a “Yes for PUD” yard signs.

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