Jefferson County Public Utility District candidates criticize electrical service switch during forum
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Jefferson PUD commissioner candidates Tony De Leo, left, and Kenneth Collins participate in a candidate forum Wednesday night. Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

CHIMACUM — The takeover of electrical service by the Jefferson County Public Utility District from Puget Sound Energy was poorly planned and improperly executed, according to candidates for the utility’s board of commissioners.

“There really wasn’t adequate planning,” said Kenneth Collins, who will face Tony De Leo in the Nov. 4 general election for the seat now held by Ken McMillen.

“They thought they could run an organization with 20,000 people with the same kind of staffing and mentality as with 4,000 people, and it cannot be done,” Collins said at a Wednesday forum at the Chimacum Grange moderated by Jim Fritz before an audience of 17.

De Leo said the purchase of PSE infrastructure in East Jefferson County has resulted in an uncertain financial picture for the county utility.

“Since the takeover, Chief Financial Officer Michael Legarsky has been working 12 hours a day to figure out what’s wrong with the finances and has managed to straighten some of it out,” De Leo said.

“They aren’t sure exactly how to make this work in a slow economy.”

De Leo said the PUD needs to be run “more like a business and be more customer-centered.

“Right now, there are too many jobs and too few people doing them, which will result in a burn-out situation,” he added.

Collins, 67, is a Marrowstone Island vintner with a background in the utility industry. He won 44.57 percent of the vote in the Aug. 5 primary election, which narrowed the field to the top two vote-getters for the general election.

De Leo, 65, is a retired business owner who has served as a Jefferson Healthcare hospital commissioner for 40 years. He won 29.81 percent of the primary vote.

Collins’ and De Leo’s vote totals thwarted incumbent PUD Commissioner Ken McMillen’s bid for another term, holding him to 21.05 percent.

Both candidates are certain that utility rates will increase.

“The problem is they’ve spent more money than they had told the public they are going to spend,” Collins said.

“They need to go back to the public and say, ‘I’m sorry, but we are going to have to raise the rates in order to do the job properly.’”

In 2008, voters granted the public agency — which already provided water and sewer service — the authority to offer electrical service to East Jefferson County residents.

The vote severed a relationship with PSE that spanned about 100 years.

In May, 2010, Jefferson County PUD commissioners voted to go into the electrical power business, agreeing in a nonbinding letter of intent with Puget Sound Energy to purchase PSE’s electrical system for $103 million.

The transferred assets included 19,000 residential and meters, eight substations, 26.4 miles of 115 kilovolt transmission lines, 380 miles of overhead line, 353 miles of underground distribution lines and the operations building and yard at 310 Four Corners Road.

The amount the PUD paid swelled by about $5 million because of improvements PSE made to the system.

Both candidates said the PUD paid too much.

“I think we got sold a bill of goods,” Collins said.

“We were betrayed and sucked in by a bait-and-switch with has been aggravated by billing errors and lots of ill feeling.”

Collins said the PUD suffers from “a PR problem,” which he would repair with regular newsletters and customer outreach.

Both candidates criticized the public utility for shutting off power to about 500 households last winter and not making the customers aware of possible subsidies.

“One of the reasons I am running is that I am tired of hearing reports of people whose power got turned off because they didn’t pay their bills,” De Leo said.

“People deserve our help, and they should be able to use the PUD to consolidate their efforts and improve their lives, so they need access to information that can help them.”

While both candidates agreed on many topics, there are differences, Collins said.

“Our positions aren’t opposed in any significant way, but there are nuances,” he said. “I think our experience is different and our approach to the whole campaign.

“I’m not a commissioner anywhere else. I have the time, the energy, the motivation and the focus for this job.

“I think that Mr. De Leo has done an excellent job as hospital commissioner, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that would distract him,” Collins added.

De Leo is allowed to serve on two different boards as long as the positions do not appear on the same ballot.

“Now that I’m retired, I have the time and the energy to serve on both boards,” De Leo said.

“Due to my work with the hospital, I have a hand on the demographics.

“I know what the economy looks like around here, and I know how many people are in financial hardship.

“I’ve been in business, so I know what a business should look like, and the PUD doesn’t look like one.”

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

Last modified: August 14. 2014 7:07PM
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