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PUD assesses past, looks to future

Tensions still high over local electric district's leadership and spending patterns

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia River PUD Board President Dave Baker responds to questions from ratepayers during a regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 17 as Vice President Jake Carter (left) and Director Richard Simpson (right) listen to comments.

The past year, no public agency in South Columbia County has garnered more scrutiny than the Columbia River People’s Utility District. Since late 2014, the PUD has been plagued by legal battles with its former employees, management shakeups and division among directors.

A regular meeting Tuesday evening, Nov. 17, ended with a barrage of public comments that turned into a back-and-forth argument between ratepayers and directors. Two people called for Board President Dave Baker’s resignation, one asked director Richard Simpson to resign.

The criticisms of Baker and Simpson came amid rumors of recall efforts for other PUD board members.

It seemed nearly everyone who attended Tuesday’s meeting had a different opinion about how the board got into its recent mess. Others believed they were on their way out of it. 

“We’re trying to heal as a PUD,” Vice President Jake Carter said. “There are a lot of issues and we’ve been dealing with them. We’re trying to move forward and we’re going to move forward.” 

Carter previously worked for the PUD for nearly 12 years before getting elected to the district’s board of directors.

“I know the issues that went on here,” Carter said. “I know those issues were brought to the [previous] board and fell on deaf ears.”

Baker questioned the PUD’s ability to move forward with its current board and management structure.

“I honestly care about ratepayers and I care about the employees down there, too,” Baker said, “But how can we move forward with a board that thinks it’s OK to stop by the district after work one day and ask an employee if he wants to be general manager?”

Since 2011, the district has drawn down its cash reserves by slightly more than $3.5 million. A glimpse of the utility district’s 2016 proposed budget shows the district hovering just above its lowest targeted reserve amount of $8.2 million.

Interim General Manager John Nguyen touted the district’s employees and budget, saying the 2016 finances represent a nearly $450,000 savings in staffing costs. The district has lost at least five employees since September.

“Our focus this year is to continue to invest in the PUD’s electric infrastructure to improve safety, security, reliability and capacity, but to also focus on cost management and working more efficiently,” Nguyen stated Wednesday. “We are especially proud that we’ve been able to produce a budget that keeps our cash reserve balance above the target level of $8.2 million set by the board without impacting our service level.”

Tuesday’s proposed budget presentation also emphasized controllable costs. So far in 2015, the PUD has exceeded its $72,000 legal budget by nearly $289,000.

Nguyen said some of that could be reimbursed by the district’s insurer, but noted the 2016 budget includes $110,000 for legal expenses.