PUD risky for businesses and residents

By Jill Johnson

The primary duty of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce is to be an advocate for the best economic environment for our members. The chamber’s board of directors took a position on the upcoming PUD ballot measure that will be before voters this November as that advocate.

The PUD is an interesting proposal with some possible upsides for the local economy: It would create local jobs, it would offer local control of our power supply and it has the possibility of lower rates in the future. All of these are attractive concepts that would normally be the type of thing a chamber of commerce would be excited about. The problem at this stage is in the specifics surrounding the formation of a PUD and the taxing authority granted to the PUD commissioners, making this proposal risky for businesses and residents alike.

The chamber board elected to take a position on the PUD at its Sept. 9 meeting after a discussion that focused on the impact the proposed measure could have on island businesses and residents.

Ultimately, the board’s decision focused on five key areas:

1. The PUD creates another taxing district which would be able to levy taxes and issue bonds without any further votes by the citizens of Whidbey Island. In contrast, other taxing districts (like a school district, for example) need to go to the voters before issuing a bond or levying a tax. The PUD taxing authority does not give voters that same consideration.

2. The costs of creating the PUD remain unknown and the time line before users see a return on their investment is unclear. The proposed PUD lacks specifics and the cost of those unknowns will be passed on to taxpayers. The cost of creating a PUD varies by millions. The legal battle that will inevitably ensue between the PUD and PSE will be paid for by taxpayers and the ultimate cost of that battle is unknown. The larger the initial bill, the more we will have to pay. Businesses and residents will ultimately pay more before they pay less.

3. There are not enough protections in place for small business. PUD commissioners would have the authority to set substantially higher rates for the commercial user than for the residential user, leaving small businesses vulnerable.

4. There is no firm projection of what the “lower” rates will be with the PUD and no timeline for when those rates would go into effect.

5. The relationship between the PUD and Naval Air Station Whidbey is uncertain. While NAS Whidbey has an established relationship with their current energy provider, it is unclear how the proposed PUD will impact NAS Whidbey. Until recently, the PUD organizers did not realize that NAS Whidbey was one of its proposed users; they thought they received their power directly from the BPA. Before asking voters to make such a significant decision, the PUD should have known who all its users were and what impact this type of change would have on them.

These five questions are only the beginning. What about staffing levels? Where our current energy provider can pull crews from throughout the region to help restore power if there is a significant power outage, a PUD would not have those same resources in man power. So the questions become, do you staff at an emergency level or do you staff at a level you need on a day to day basis and scramble during a power outage?

The concern the chamber board has is that at this stage the answers are based on best case scenarios and educated guesses, not facts. The PUD proponents have not done a good enough job of educating the public, nor have they provided the assurances businesses and residents need before creating a new layer of government and a new taxing district.

As Chamber Board President Randy Bradford stated, “We definitely understand the desire to explore a PUD district, and we can see some potential upsides to its creation; however, there are too many unknowns to move forward. Just the fact that the PUD and NAS Whidbey, the region’s largest employer, are not clear on what their relationship will be is disconcerting.”

The chamber board’s recommendation to the business community at large is a no vote on the PUD district. Our business community and Island residents cannot afford to take this type of risk given today’s financial climate, and the chamber believes that the PUD is a dangerous economic proposal at its current stage.

Jill Johnson is executive director of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

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