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Voters pull plug on proposal to start power company

Voters were soundly rejecting a proposal to create a Whidbey Island-based power company, according to early vote returns from Tuesday's election.

The proposal was being defeated, 15,045 to 7,554, in early vote tallies.

"We're getting crushed," said Dave Metheny, campaign director for “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD,” the group that started the drive for a Whidbey-based power company.

"I guess the people of the island has spoken. They got their money's worth," Metheny said.

The push to create a Whidbey-based public utility district started this spring, and was sparked in part by concern over the proposed sale of Puget Sound Energy to a consortium of foreign investors led by the Macquarie Bank of Australia. The measure would have formed a local public utility district to take over the service territory of Puget Sound Energy, a Bellevue-based utility that supplies electricity to 34,000 customers on Whidbey and 1 million customers throughout Washington.

The proposal, however, seems headed for a lopsided defeat.

"We're honored and humbled, and are thankful to our customers for their support," said Kit Maret, a Puget Sound Energy engineer who lives on Whidbey Island and has spoken out against the PUD proposal.

"We had an opportunity to get a lot of feedback from customers," she added. "I think we're looking forward to learning from that experience and doing better. We want to continue to provide reliable and affordable electric service."

The measure would also establish a three-member board of commissioners, who would have the power to condemn Puget Sound Energy’s electric system and determine a purchase price. Supporters and opponents both predicted the eventual takeover would lead to a long and costly court battle.

There were other concerns, as well.

Critics of the idea said too many questions had been left unanswered by the proponents of a Whidbey PUD, and some worried that PUD commissioners would have too much power to raises taxes without a public vote if the PUD was given the green light on Election Day. And Nancy Snow, a Langley woman, started an online petition drive calling for another public vote on the formation of a PUD after an initial feasibility study was finished.

Puget Sound Energy and its consultants warned the takeover could cost between $130 million and $200 million and could lead to 20-percent higher rates.

"People for Yes” said the takeover would cost $57 million and would mean an initial property tax increase of between $2.57 and $5.78 for a $300,000 home to get the PUD started.

PUD supporters also said customers would eventually see savings in their electric bills of 20 percent, and said the PUD would mean local control of the power system and new jobs for Whidbey Island.

"People for Yes" was heavily outspent by the campaign set up by Puget Sound Energy to torpedo the proposal.

"Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy," a political action committee financed by Puget Sound Energy contributions, raised $283,040 for the anti-PUD campaign and spent $273,806, according to records on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The campaign's entire war chest — $276,000 in cash and $7,040 in in-kind contributions — came entirely from Puget Sound Energy.

"People for Yes" raised $21,401 and spent $21,196.

Voters were also deciding on candidates for the PUD board; Tim Arnold of Clinton and Georgia Gardner of Coupeville in the South End district, Brien Lillquist and Patrick Harman in the central district and Marshall Goldberg in the North End district.

Harmon was winning, 9,420 votes to Lillquist's 4,191.

Arnold was also ahead, 7,517 votes to Gardner's 6,241.

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