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People’s utility district is dead, for now

Commission rescinds resolution, meaning proponents would have to turn toward signature-gathering
News Editor
   July 9, 2003 — A resolution putting a proposed people's utility district on the November ballot was rescinded Thursday by the Jefferson County Commission in the face of legal action from Pacific Power.
   The commissioners voted unanimously to backtrack on the resolution, which originally was adopted June 12 without proper public notice.
   After Thursday's decision, Commission Chairman Walt Ponsford reiterated the importance of legal counsel, which the county has been without since attorney Paul Hathaway resigned in May to accept a job in Washington County.
   "This commission voted to have a vote, and what we found was that we didn't have all our ducks in a row," Ponsford said.
   The June 12 resolution authorizing the people's utility district vote put several items on the November ballot, including the incorporation of the PUD's boundaries, a proposed $1,500 bond to raise funds for an engineering study and the election of five board members to govern the district.
   A people's utility district is a local government entity formed to provide electricity or water to a community. In theory, at least, a PUD can offer residents lower utility bills by removing corporate profit margins and selling products and services at cost-based rates. There currently are six such districts in Oregon.
   Two weeks ago, Bernie Bottomly, director of community service for Pacific Power, told the commissioners his company would initiate legal action if their June 12 resolution wasn't rescinded immediately.
   But on Thursday, Bottomly, flanked by a public relations spokesperson, toned down his talk, but not without challenging the notion that a PUD would benefit Jefferson County consumers.
   Bottomly said the proposed $1,500 engineering study was grossly underestimated, and would probably cost taxpayers between $70,000 and $90,000. Further, he said, a PUD would have to buy Pacific Power's assets in Jefferson County -- a price tag that could land anywhere between $17 million and $100 million.
   PUDs, when formed, must have a service district to distribute their power.
   "At the end of the day, what the residents and costumers would have acquired is the same poles and wires that are there today," Bottomly told the commissioners.
   Pacific Power -- a subsidiary of ScottishPower-owned PacifiCorp, a utility company serving 1.5 million customers in Oregon, Utah, Washington, Idaho and Northern California -- has approximately 8,500 customers in Jefferson County.
   According to Oregon law, Central Electric Co-op, the other local power provider, cannot be taken over by a Jefferson County-based PUD.
   Bottomly also warned that voting districts that cast a majority of ballots against a PUD can opt out of the district, creating a complicated "swiss-cheese environment."
   "There would be a lengthy and expensive negotiation process," Bottomly told the commissioners, while also reminding them his company would fight the PUD in court.
   Discussions on the proposed PUD earlier this year originally centered around the idea of condemning Portland General Electric's Round Butte and Pelton dams on the Deschutes River, which it co-owns with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
   PGE currently is for sale by its bankrupt parent company, Enron, and the city of Portland has made overtures toward a purchase. A grassroots PUD initiative effort in Multnomah County also made commissioners Mary Zemke and Ponsford wary of public entities taking over assets crucial to Jefferson County's tax base.
   A citizens task force chaired by Vern Bowers, president of Crooked River Ranch's homeowners' association, worked for several months on the PUD resolution, which shifted the focus toward using it as a vehicle for creating renewable energy facilities.
   Bowers said after the hearing Thursday that Pacific Power's resistance was expected, and that he will be consulting his committee to determine whether to start a grassroots signature-gathering campaign to form a PUD.
   "The fact is they don't want to change because it would negatively impact them," Bowers said.
   Deston Nokes, a Pacific Power spokesperson, said the company decided not to initiate legal action two weeks ago after the commissioners indicated they likely were going to rescind the resolution at their next meeting.
   "I think he was just pointing out that the process wasn't followed properly," Nokes said of his colleague, Bottomly, who had threatened the lawsuit.
   Bottomly told the commissioners Thursday that PacifiCorp ranked No. 3 in the nation for marketing renewable energy, and that his company is open to discussions on partnering on projects.
   He cited a project in which PacifiCorp and the city of Klamath Falls partnered on a 484-megawatt, gas-fired cogeneration plant -- a remark that drew polite chuckles from individuals sitting in the audience. Zemke and Ponsford were propelled to victory last year because of their opposition to a 980-megawatt cogeneration plant once proposed southwest of Madras.
   Zemke said PUD proponents likely will go ahead with a petition drive, and that she was encouraged by Bottomly's statements.
   "I hope if PacifiCorp is serious about working with us on renewable energy that they'll come up with a proposal for us," she said.
   Commissioner Bill Bellamy said rescinding the PUD resolution now frees the county being the lead agency on the proposal, and all the liability that comes with it.
   "If people are interested in going though the petition process," Bellamy said, "I certainly won't do anything to stop them or slow them down."