I’m a firm believer in the value of public engagement in charting the course of public agencies whenever possible. Creating a meaningful conversation with the community has its challenges, but when it is done effectively, it leads to a greater sense of trust and shared ownership.
We all have a stake in the direction of our public institutions and grappling with the same trade-offs facing managers and elected officials gives us a unique opportunity to peer behind the curtain and provide guidance and input.
The Chelan County PUD has done a commendable job of engaging the public in recent years and has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and accountability.
The PUD is launching a public survey to help shape the 2020-24 strategic plan. Mailers have been sent out to customers along with directions to respond to the survey online.
There are big decisions facing the district, the most significant of which is whether to implement regular, small rate increases as a way to hedge against the risk of the wholesale market for power deteriorating.
The PUD is financially strong thanks to following through on its last strategic plan, which called for reducing debt, initiating a public power benefit and following through on environmental commitments.
The PUD’s last rate increase was implemented seven years ago. Chelan County’s rates are among the lowest in the nation and the gap between what other utility customers are paying and what we pay is increasing, which creates some political risk.
Local ratepayers are subsidized to the tune of about 40 percent by wholesale power purchasers. That’s an amazing economic benefit but it will last only as long as wholesale rates remain strong. If the wholesale rates drop markedly, ratepayers here could see double digit rate increases. So, the question is whether it would be prudent to start initiating some modest rate increases over the next several years to hedge against that risk.
In the last strategic planning effort, the PUD came up with a philosophy to guide everyday and strategic decision making. That philosophy comes down to three principles: The best, for the most, for the longest. Translated, it means that the PUD seeks to make decisions that are best for most customers for the long term.
I love that philosophy because of the long-term perspective. A great weakness of Wall Street and corporate America is the emphasis on short term profitability without factoring in the long-term. Making all decisions based on immediate impacts rewards short-term speculators.
In talking with Chelan PUD General Manager Steve Wright, he said the mantra of “the best, for the most, for the longest” has been fully absorbed into the PUD’s culture.
Besides the long-term rate strategy, PUD customer are being asked to provide guidance on criteria that should be used for the public power benefit when evaluating potential projects. Another topic is the relicensing of Rock Island Dam and whether the PUD should start recreational or environmental projects to support that relicensing effort. Another key topic is whether the utility should increase the focus on retail sales and reduce wholesale sales to support economic development.
In looking through the survey guide that was mailed out, I was impressed by the depth of the questions being asked and the tradeoffs that the PUD leaders have to weigh. What a privilege it is to live in a valley in which meaningful public input is encouraged and facilitated by a local public agency. I’m sure it would be easier for PUD leaders to make decisions with little public input.
It is commendable that the PUD takes the time and effort to give us a voice in these leadership decisions. Let’s do our part by thoughtfully considering the alternatives and providing input and guidance at ourpublicpower.org.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. Contact him at 665-1162 or firstname.lastname@example.org.