Correction:The Thurston Public Power Initiative turned in 15,413 signatures, of which the county Auditor’s Office checked and reviewed 13,411. Of those, 21.79 percent were ruled invalid, leaving 11,011 valid signatures, more than the required 10,734. Because the county stopped counting, there is no information about the remaining 2,002 signatures that the county did not count or validate. Information in an editorial on July 18 was incomplete.
Among the many important decisions Thurston County voters will make at the ballot box this fall, none has the potential to directly affect more people, more dramatically than the Public Power Initiative.
Supporters collected the required number of signatures to get the initiative on the ballot in November, but just barely. The measure required 10,734 valid signatures and supporters turned in 11,011, a margin of 277.
Now voters must decide whether to give the Public Utility District – a small water district with 3,200 connections – authorization to explore the feasibility of going into the business of supplying power and service in Thurston County.
To make that decision voters are going to need accurate information.
Some will make an emotional decision, based on a preference for putting their electrical power needs in the hands of a locally controlled utility district rather than a statewide power company with international investors.
For most, however, the decision will boil down to which entity offers the best opportunity for reasonable rates and top-quality service.
The initiative’s supporters have not yet made a strong financial argument. PUD Commissioner Chris Stearns, who is leading the public power charge, cannot state expected public power rates in the near- or long-terms, with any degree of certainty.
That’s because running the initiative before the PUD commissioned a feasibility study is akin to putting the cart before the horse. No one knows today what it would cost to acquire PSE’s assets, pay legal fees, purchase trucks and equipment and set up all the other infrastructure required to transform a small water district into a major electrical company serving the state’s sixth-largest county.
A feasibility study is coming, but not until later in August, giving voters only six weeks or so to digest complicated information before they start filling out ballots.
The study itself may well raise more questions than it answers because the PUD chose the same consulting firm used by Jefferson County. That study projected Jefferson’s cost of acquisition at $47 million. Five years later, Jefferson has spent more than $115 million getting their project off the ground.
That’s a significant miss. The erroneous projection may have swayed Jefferson County voters, who won’t see any significantly lower electrical rates for decades – in fact, rates will be higher than PSE’s through 2020 – as they were promised. On top of that, the PUD is increasing property taxes to fund its debt.
The debate over the merits of the PUD’s financial projections cannot seriously begin until the feasibility study is made public. It may explain why the Jefferson County experience is or is not a fair comparison to Thurston.
The draft report acquired through the Freedom of Information Act appears to be a template that contains no localized projections regarding the estimated cost of power supply and transmission, or projected revenue requirements. The draft study does curiously appear to already favor public power on non-economic benefits before it has included any financial information.
This fall’s initiative isn’t the only chance voters have to express their views on public versus private electrical providers. The race to fill the open District No. 1 commissioner seat, a six-year term, features leading candidates Linda Oosterman, who has expressed doubts about public power, and Steve Fossum, who has supported the idea.
The outcome of both contests will determine how Thurston County residents get their electrical power in the future. We hope they make a well-informed choice.