It’s lots of work and little or no pay, but there is no shortage of people who want to be commissioner for Whidbey Island’s proposed public utility district. Voters not only have to decide if they want to proceed with the push toward a locally-controlled power company for Whidbey Island Nov. 4, but also who they want to see in charge.
An illustrious group — an engineer, a former state senator, a retired physician, an ex-Navy aircraft mechanic and a former Alaskan PUD commissioner — want to help run a Whidbey-based utility. Three would govern the proposed public utilities district and would be in charge of hiring a manager for the electrical system, and oversee operation and maintenance.
The job also comes with the power to exercise the district’s taxing authority, decide to continue or abort the effort and decide how much money should be spent on a feasibility study and ultimately decide if a switch to public power is worthwhile. Voters will elect PUD commissioners at the same time they decide if they want to form a public utilities district.
If voters give the green light, the candidates have said that a first step would be to commission a feasibility study to assess the cost impact a take-over of Puget Sound Energy’s system would have on the island. All five have also vowed that they would not proceed with the effort if a public utilities district is not feasible.
So far, firm dollar figures have been elusive in the discussion about the PUD. Proponents have quoted $57 million for the takeover of Puget Sound Energy’s assets and an initial property tax increase of between $2.57 and $5.78 for a $300,000 home to get the PUD started, saying that customers will eventually see savings in their bill of 20 percent, while Puget Sound Energy and its consultants have said that the takeover could cost between $130 million and $200 million and could lead to 20-percent higher rates.
South End district
District 3, which covers the South End and stretches all the way to Coupeville, has perhaps the highest-qualified candidates in the race, with a former Puget Sound Energy engineer who knows the local system and an former state senator who has helped run a PUD in Blaine.
But only one can win.
Tim Arnold of Clinton and Georgia Gardner of Coupeville have thrown their hats into the race to represent the South End on the board of PUD commissioners.
Arnold said he brings practical and technical knowledge of the system on the island.
“What I bring to the table is knowing and understanding what you get for your money,” he said.
Arnold has worked in the electrical utility industry for many years, including as a general manager for Puget Power for Whidbey Island for two years in the early 1990s.
“I am running because our island needs the best. If the PUD initiative passes, I want to be there to make sure it is the most cost effective and reliable plan possible,” he said.
“Forming a new PUD is a very complex process, where not having expertise will be very costly,” Arnold added. “I’ve managed all the departments that a successful PUD will need.”
He said if voters approve the measure, they need somebody in the leadership position who knows the business.
“It takes somebody with experience to run the system,” Arnold said. “Because if you make a mistake in this marketplace it can cost millions of dollars.”
Arnold said he could provide realistic input and ask voters if they prefer to see revenue returned to them as savings on power bills or as investment in infrastructure.
“I’d go back to the constituents and say ‘We can save this much money or is reliability more important?’” he said.
Despite his expertise, Arnold was vague on what he estimates Puget Sound Energy’s system is worth. But he did say it is in good shape.
“The realistic number will be decided by an arbitrator or court of law,” he said.
However, he said that the feasibility study to get a closer estimate of what it would cost won’t come cheap to residents.
“Nobody is going to take this on for free,” he said.
“To say that we can do it for $25,000 is not valid. It’s probably more like $200,000, maybe as much as a million, with some litigation money.”
One of the concerns critics have voiced is the power that will be bestowed on the commissioners once they are elected.
Proponents of the PUD have argued that the commissioners would be kept in check by their constituents at public meetings.
Arnold said he understands that the majority of residents do not attend public meetings, and that the commissioners need to have an effective way to get public feedback.
And even though he once worked for Puget Sound Energy, he said he has no more ties with the company.
“I haven’t worked for PSE for over seven years and receive no compensation,” he said.
Gardner, an accountant and former state senator, said she has another job in mind for Arnold. Not commissioner, but general manager.
“He would be perfect to run the system,” she said. “If there is one thing between me and Tim, it’s he’s the mechanic and I’m the accountant. What you need is a good accountant.”
And the accountant said that Puget Sound Energy has quoted an inflated price for its system that she is not willing to pay.
“PSE told the tax assessor the system is worth $40 million,” she said. “They tell the tax assessor for tax purposes it’s $40 million. Since they attested to the $40 million that’s what it is.”
She asks voters to trust the commissioners to do the research and make an informed and responsible decision.
“It is no leap of faith,” she said. “We want you to give the go-ahead so we can study the numbers. In six to nine months, we have all the numbers tied down.”
The study will cost between $80,000 and $100,000, she said, and will provide enough information to decide.
However, even before the study, she is confident the proposal is a good deal.
“The savings will be there,” Gardner said. “And they will be profound.”
She said increasing reliability is important.
“Personally, I’d like to get rid of every single one of those generators. That’s the worst kind of energy,” Gardner said.
However, most importantly she hopes for a utility that can be held accountable.
“The fact that they (Puget Sound Energy) are getting away with murder and we’re paying for it makes me furious,” she said.
She also took offense to the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce decision to come out against the proposal without hearing from PUD proponents. She said hearing from those who have done the research is the least the merchants could have done.
She plans to continue doorbelling, because, so far, Gardner said, most who have listened became “believers.”
For District 2, which stretches from Coupeville and includes the city of Oak Harbor, Brien Lillquist and Patrick Harman have filed as candidates.
Harman, a former PUD commissioner for Municipal Light and Power in Anchorage, Alaska, said he is not certain that a public utilities district is the best choice for Whidbey Island, but certainly one worth exploring.
“When I first saw this I was fundamentally opposed to forming a PUD. I didn’t have an ax to grind,” he recalled.
But neither proponents nor opponents could provide him with data that helped answer his questions about the proposition.
“When I listened to both sides, I didn’t get any information,” Harman said, adding that he believes the commissioner-led feasibility study will provide essential answers.
In addition, he said people should consider laying the groundwork for a takeover of Puget Sound Energy assets as an insurance policy in uncertain times.
“A few things have changed in the last few days with the credit market meltdown,” he said. With the financial markets in upheaval, Puget Sound Energy and the foreign-based investor group that wants to buy the utility may be in trouble.
“We might as well pass it, put it in the freezer, in case we need to provide power,” Harman said.
Harman also addressed the challenge of reaching all layers of the island population and being reached by them during the decision-making process.
In addition to transparent meetings and records, he was the only commissioner candidate who promised a referendum in case the public utilities district goes into business and needs more money.
“We may need significantly more taxing authority if we’re going into business,” he said. “I think then people have a right to vote.”
He also said he would spend money conservatively on behalf of the district.
Before the feasibility study, he would give the proposal a “flunk test” with best-guesstimates at no cost. If the proposal passes, he estimates that the feasibility study would cost around $100,000.
He also said he opposes condemnation of Puget Sound Energy’s assets. He also said that the $57 million estimated by “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD” is “unrealistic” and likely much more.
“Between $44 million and $200 million is where the answer lies,” he said.
Harman wants to update the system with 21st-century technology, he said.
Earlier in the race, he spoke in support of a southern inter-tie that would feed power to the South End from the mainland. That’s a very costly idea, but one that was tossed around by many residents during the winter storms two years ago.
His opponent, Lillquist, said that’s one way to improve reliability, but it’s too costly.
“Getting power here from Everett is almost unattainable,” he said.
The former North Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board member is in support of a back-up generator for the South End, such as the Langley generator that fed the South End during power outages years ago.
Both candidates said improving reliability is paramount, but Lillquist is also not certain that the PUD is the answer.
“I am not really sure if it is or isn’t. I think it is a good idea to bring it into existence,” he said. “All the commissioners have agreed that if we can’t get it in at lower rates, we won’t.”
And just like Harman he looks for answers in the feasibility study.
“We hear all these wild estimates. What is it? I would like to know.”
“The study is an unknown at this time,” Lillquist said, adding that it will be a good investment.
“I’d rather spend a little more and get it right the first time,” he added.
Lillquist also said given the current economic situation, Puget Sound Energy may be more open to sell the system.
“I’d think they’d be happy to unload,” he said.
He also vowed to listen to other consultants and the public.
“We don’t want to get so wrapped up in the study that we don’t listen to anybody else,” he said.
Lillquist promises a transparent process and public meetings held in the evenings at a central location so as many people as possible can attend, but he acknowledges that it will tough to hear all of Whidbey without a vote.
“Unfortunately, small groups of people get together that are very vocal and shout over everybody else,” he said. “All we can do is keep your pulse on what’s going on.”
North End district
Marshall Goldberg, who is also the chairman of the Island County Democrats, is running unopposed to represent the North End on the board.
The retired physician would represent District 1, which covers all of North Whidbey, including the Navy’s Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor.
His run for office was a last-minute decision to keep the proposition alive when nobody else volunteered for the position, he said.
Goldberg has stood out at the various forums and debates through careful study and note-taking, but he praises his people skills as the strong suit he would bring to the board.
Goldberg said that PUDs have a proven track record of providing reliable energy, borrow money at a better rate and have developed a support system among themselves.
He is enthusiastic about the possibilities of investing into alternative energy as a public utilities district, and said that PUDs are in a better position to venture into the field.
“PSE doesn’t have the same incentive to invest in renewables, especially because 37 percent of their energy comes from coal-fired plants,” he said.
Goldberg said that while many South Enders are excited about the potential of a PUD, the proposition is a harder sell on the North End. He also said the proposition will live or die based on the vote in the two north districts because of the population there.
He plans to speak to as many people as possible between now and the election to convince them to give the proposition a chance.