Jefferson County Public Utility District candidates talk of shut-offs, rates at forum

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

CHIMACUM — Shut-offs to low-income customers, electricity rates and the quick growth of the Jefferson County Public Utility District were among the topics discussed during a recent candidate forum.

Incumbent Ken McMillen, 81, who is seeking a sixth six-year term, Kenneth Collins, 67, and Tony DeLeo, 65, are running in the nonpartisan race for the District 2 position on the PUD board of commissioners.

About 50 people attended the forum last Thursday at the Tri-Area Community Center in Chimacum.

It was sponsored by the Jefferson County League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women and the Port Townsend-Jefferson County Leader and was moderated by the newspaper’s general manager, Fred Obee.

The top two votegetters in the Aug. 5 primary will advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

Collins, who owns and operates Marrowstone Vineyards, criticized the PUD for shutting off power to low-income customers last winter, something he said that Puget Sound Energy would never do.

The PUD took over electrical service from PSE in April 2013, a move approved by voters in 2009.

“Many of you have stopped trusting the PUD,” Collins said.

“That’s because the PUD bought an electric utility at twice what it said it needed to pay and the promised rate reduction is never going to happen.

“Many of you have also lost confidence in the PUD’s ability to manage because it failed to implement a functional billing system that resulted in hundreds of errors,” Collins said.

McMillen defended the $103 million purchase.

“When you buy an existing business, you can pay more than 50 percent more than the assessed value for good will, which is exactly what we did,” he said.

McMillen said the PUD, which had provided only water and sewer service before taking on electrical service, worked on that electrical system for five years “before we got it going and we’ve been operating it for one year now,” he said.

The transition was not smooth, McMillen said.

“We had to start up the billing. We had to do the financing and buy equipment. We’ve done a lot.”

DeLeo, who serves on the Jefferson Healthcare board of commissioners, said that serving on both boards would be an advantage.

“This position is one of the top positions in the organizations that comes with a six-year contract, so you will have to choose well,” DeLeo said.

“Anyone who’s transitioned from the private sector to the public sector can tell you that it’s a learning curve beyond belief,” he added.

“The hospital district and the PUD are similar with the regulations they must work under, like public records and public meetings.”

DeLeo came out as a strong advocate for solar power, saying the PUD should lobby the state Legislature to raise the 1 percent ceiling on how much solar power can be produced in each county.

“I think our future is in the generation of solar power,” DeLeo said.

“We need to work with the Legislature so we can continue to grow.”

Both Collins and DeLeo expect PUD rates to increase.

“I think we will need the rates to cover the type of hiring and the programs that all of us would like to see for us to be providing and to be functioning at an optimum level,” Collins said.

“We should look into the idea of tacking $1 per month on each bill to support low-income customers,” DeLeo.

“That will add up to over $200,000 a year to help the community with $1 per bill, which is less than a cup of coffee.”

McMillen poked holes in DeLeo’s plan.

“Raise the rates to do what? Give the money away? It’s against the law,” he said.

“We could come up with a break for some people but we can’t replace the money that PSE passed out.

“Are we going to raise the rates? I don’t know. We never said we would lower the rates, but they’ll be as low as possible.”

Collins said that a rate study should have been done a few years ago.

McMillen said that such a study requires three years of financial statements “and we’ve only been in business one year.”

A study is now in progress, McMillen said.

Collins called for new administrative positions: an IT director, an accountant and a conservation specialist to help low-income families use less power.

“Climate change is already happening,” Collins said. “In order to pay for that, we need to be helping low-income families with weatherization and conservation approaches.

“The PUD did nothing to replace the half million dollars that PSE provided to low income families and instead turned off power to 500 accounts last year and have referred 600 accounts to collection.”

Said McMillen: “There isn’t any utility that doesn’t do shut-offs.

“By law, we can’t provide free service because when we give it away, someone else has to pick up the tab.

“We try to have lots of compassion. We work with people for 90 or 100 days before we shut them off.”

The PUD is a unique government agency, DeLeo said.

“It has to be run like a business and the cost of operation needs to be passed on to the customer.

“State law requires the PUD to raise its rates in order to provide adequate funding for its operations.

“On the other side, it needs to make allowances for people who are less fortunate, but only on the basis of short-term, interim help.”

Another forum — this one featuring the four candidates for the District 3 County Commissioner seat — will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Beach Club, 121 Marina View Drive, Port Ludlow.

Commissioner John Austin is not seeking re-election.

Filing for the seat are Kathleen Kler, 64, a Quilcene Democrat; Joe Baisch, 66, of Brinnon, who stated no party preference; Daniel S. Toepper, 53, of Port Ludlow, who also filed with no party preference; and Alex (Andy) Borgeson, 44, of Port Ludlow, who prefers the Independent Party.

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 06. 2014 7:17PM
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