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Whidbey PUD supporters submit signatures to county auditor

The dispute over control of Whidbey Island’s energy could soon appear in ballot form, after People for Yes on Whidbey PUD present their nearly 3,100 signatures to the Island County Auditor today.

If the signatures are valid, the issue will be on the November general election ballot. A total of 2,392 signatures are needed to qualify. The drive aims to take over Whidbey Island’s electrical grid from privately-owned and Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, which is in the process of being purchased by foreign investors.

At a public utility district panel Wednesday night at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland, commissioners from PUD districts in Whatcom and Skagit counties answered questions from local residents.

“Most questions centered on costs of setting up a PUD and how much lawyers will cost when PSE starts suing,” David Metheny, campaign director of People for Yes on Whidbey PUD, said after the meeting.

From discussions with other utility managers, Metheny speculates that if Macquarie Bank succeeds in purchasing Puget Sound Energy, they might be inclined to accept a PUD on Whidbey Island because of high costs.

“PSE is paying for a vegetation management program which began in 2006 when the power was out for days at a time. A lot of their money goes into tree trimming. The population density on Whidbey also isn’t as great as a metro area so it’s not as profitable,” Metheny said.

PSE is countering a public takeover on Whidbey through public relations. The company hired Hardy Energy Consulting to do an independent analysis on PUDs, which found them “potentially costly, lengthy and financially and operationally risky.”

“Should voters approve the formation of any new electric PUD in November, it will likely take five to 10 years for any large electric PUD to receive Bonneville Power Administration’s service for its entire load. During that time, the PUD must legally form a retail electric utility, condemn and purchase PSE’s electric distribution system, and qualify for BPA service,” Hardy reported.

Hardy is referring to BPA’s Tier 1 federal power rates, which are provided at-cost to publicly-owned utilities and would be cheaper than PSE’s rates. Meanwhile, PSE recently requested a 12 percent general rate increase, or about $10.48 a month, from the Utility and Transportation Commission.

Another independent study by UtiliPoint International, Inc., was released by PSE. It estimates the cost of a PUD in Skagit County would be more than $240 million and lead to 20 percent higher electrical rates.

Metheny, who can’t produce similar numbers for Island County, suggests the Skagit County number is exaggerated. He worries that PSE is trying to bury PUD proponents in a numbers game. He said People for Yes on PUD can’t afford a study that costs $100,000 because they are not an established PUD.

“We have $500 in the bank,” he said.

PSE spokesperson Gretchen Aliabadi said employees are heading out into the community and gathering specific information on Whidbey Island, such as transformer costs and costs to build. The information exchange at this point is informal, but if the PUD issue appears on November’s ballot, they plan to post their results on the Web and send emails to customers.

Aliabadi opined that the PUD group won’t be able to provide enough information for voters to make an informed decision even if the petition signatures are valid.

The PUD group has had a couple of engineers and accountants come forward to provide more technical numbers for free, but at this point, costs would only be an educated guess, Metheny said.

“We’re bumping up against a multi-million dollar public relations campaign. We will have to get creative,” Metheny said.

At Wednesday’s panel, there was no clear opposition from the local residents, mostly curiosity, as Metheny saw it.

Island County Auditor Sheila Crider said the signatures should be verified by the end of the day on June 7, unless there any problems. If found sufficient, the Board of County Commissioners will hold a public hearing to decide if the measure should be placed on the ballot.

In upcoming weeks, there will be three more forums involving PUD commissioners and alternative energy speakers in the north, central and south areas of Whidbey Island.

“We also hope to engage in public dialogue with PSE,” Metheny said.

Aliabadi said that if there’s an invitation for a meeting, PSE would like to be there.

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