Should Thurston County switch to a public power system?

Pro: It will keep control and money here at home; CON: Not enough information to assume this kind risk and debt

Special to The OlympianJuly 26, 2012 

Pro: It will keep control and money here at home

BY JOHN PEARCE

It’s time to invest in your future

The 100-plus volunteers of Thurston Public Power Initiative turned in 15,413 signatures to the Auditor’s office, each one asking that the people of Thurston County vote on Public Power.

It is now on the November ballot.

A “Yes” vote means a thoughtful, efficient transition to an electrical system owned by the people of Thurston County and managed by the Public Utility District. We will follow in the footsteps of the majority of Washingtonians who currently benefit from public power. In each case they pay less than you do for the same amount of power while also having a voice in how things are run – something PSE will never give you.

A “Yes” vote means more reliable, responsive, local service resulting in fewer outages and faster repairs. After last January’s storms, 95 percent of our neighbors in public power counties had their power back on within 24 hours – how long did PSE keep you in the cold and dark?

A “Yes” vote invests in local jobs and an end to the over $17 million in profits PSE took out of Thurston County in 2011 – after paying millions to their executives in Bellevue.

In late August, the Thurston Public Utility District (TPUD) will release a study suggesting how to best manage the transition to public power. We are confident that it will suggest a gradual approach. This will allow TPUD to take advantage of the new blocks of low-cost hydropower available only to public utilities; power that PSE cannot buy.

Twelve years ago, the TPUD was less than 30 percent of its current size. It has grown greatly in both staff and responsibility. We have every confidence that they will handle the addition of electricity to their portfolio in the same deliberate, steady, and responsible manner.

Those who oppose public power have few facts on their side, so they try to scare you. Public power will not raise your taxes. As a public utility, TPUD can raise funds by offering revenue municipal bonds to investors. These are a very popular and common investment tool used by city and county governments across the country to fund infrastructure acquisitions and improvements. They are repaid over 20-30 years from electric rates – very similar to how PSE’s rates include the cost of their operations, and a PUD pays lower interest. If your taxes go up, it will have nothing to do with public power.

A “Yes” vote for public power this November means freedom for you and your neighbors, your children and grandchildren. It means adding millions of dollars each year to Thurston County’s economy. It means standing up for our right to invest in our future.

John Pearce is the chair of the Thurston Public Power Initiative.

CON: Not enough information to assume this kind risk and debt

BY DOUG MAH, RALPH MUNRO AND DIANE OBERQUELL; Special to The Olympian

In an era of shrinking paychecks and economic uncertainty, it is irresponsible to take on more public debt and increase the financial risk to businesses and families without all the facts.

But this is exactly what the proponents of public power want voters to do.

In November, Thurston County voters will be asked to approve a scheme that moves electric utility ownership from Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to the Thurston County Public Utility District (PUD). The proposal asks us to say “approve” before knowing exactly what we are approving and for how much.

Voters have no second chance to say “stop” if public power turns out to be more expensive than expected, because the PUD commissioners do not need a second vote – even if the proposal does not live up to election-year promises.

This is exactly what happened in Jefferson County.

In 2008, public power proponents claimed that authorizing the Jefferson PUD to acquire PSE’s facilities and start up electric service would cost $47 million based on a feasibility study. Five years later it actually cost $115 million.

Jefferson County voters will not see the promised rates for decades and the PUD’s initial rates will actually be higher than PSE rates. In addition, the PUD is increasing property taxes to cover acquisition costs. Voters need to understand the risks and errors in other communities that could happen here.

Thurston PUD is using the same consultant as Jefferson PUD to produce a similar feasibility study. Draft copies of the study, acquired through public records requests, contain no Thurston Countyspecific cost estimates. The draft study appears biased, favoring public power for non financial reasons.

Voters need to understand the financial feasibility before voting – but there is no study or cost estimate.

The Thurston PUD currently provides about 3,200 customers with only water. The proposal allows the PUD to build and acquire electrical utility facilities across Thurston County. It gives the PUD the authority to condemn private utility property, acquire more public debt, increase property taxes, and set electricity rates to purchase PSE facilities at a cost between $500 million to $1 billion.

However, the PUD lacks the experience to manage the electric utility for 118,000 existing customers. The voters need to understand the PUD’s plan for expanding services from 3,200 to 118,000 customers before voting – but there is no plan.

Public power proponents claim that the PUD can purchase the utility, deliver on the promise of better jobs, service, and rates and still be a financially responsible investment for the people of Thurston County.

The burden lies with proponents to make a convincing case to move to public power. We remain unconvinced.

Doug Mah is a former Olympia mayor and councilman, Ralph Munro is the former longtime Secretary of State, and Diane Oberquell is a former Thurston County Commissioner.

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