Small, regional stories often contain larger nuggets of financial wisdom

Contributing writerOctober 27, 2013 

Here is some stuff I know, the pre-Halloween “I got a rock” edition:

• The most surprising thing about the story by News Tribune reporter Alexis Krell that the city of Buckley is considering the sale of its municipal natural-gas utility was not that such a move is being contemplated.

It’s that Buckley even has a municipal gas utility, which it does. That just goes to show what you can learn by reading the paper every day.

Municipal electric utilities? Sure. Washington is awash in public power entities, including municipals in Tacoma and Seattle.

But municipal gas utilities are a rare species. Krell reports that Enumclaw and Ellensburg are the only other muni-owned gas systems in the state. A spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy, which would be the acquirer of Buckley’s gas system (it already provides electricity there), says there hasn’t been an acquisition of a municipal system by Puget or predecessor Washington Natural Gas in the 25 years she’s been with the companies.

That they could get even rarer is no surprise, either. While the fuel itself has been cheap in recent years, utilities are not cheap to operate, especially for a small town (Buckley’s gas utility has 1,400 business and residential customers). Raising capital and revenue to build, maintain, operate and expand a gas utility gets easier with scale, which a small muni doesn’t have.

Which is why, some quick rummaging around the Internet reveals, municipalities around the country have studied the idea of a municipal gas system and rejected it.

The lack of enthusiasm for municipal gas utilities is in contrast to the ongoing interest, especially in this corner of the world, in municipal electric systems. A proposal on last year’s ballot in Thurston County to set up an electric utility (taking over the service territory from PSE) was voted down, although proponents say on their website they’re continuing to push the idea. Voters in Jefferson County, on the other hand, voted in 2008 to get a public water utility into electricity; it took over operating the local electricity distribution system (also a PSE territory) this year.

Down in Oregon, where public power has a smaller share of the overall market, the city of Klamath Falls is conducting a feasibility study on whether to take over the local electric utility currently operated by Pacific Power. That would follow the lead of Hermiston, which went muni in 2001. Municipalities continue to be intrigued by the idea of getting into the power business, but no one, it seems, entertains similar notions of dealing in natural gas.

Speaking of Oregon...

• They do love their ballot initiatives in Oregon, at least as much as do the people of Washington and California, although apparently not enough to put citizen initiatives on the ballot outside of even-year general elections.

So while there’s nothing on Oregon’s ballot this year, it’s always worth watching what shows up on the ballot in those other two West Coast states, because issues in one have a way of migrating to others. Washington’s fight over labeling foods for GMO content, for example, is a replay of one in California from last year.

There are measures headed for Oregon’s 2014 ballot worth watching here, because many of the issues cross state lines.

According to the Oregonian, a local of the Service Employees International Union has filed five ballot measures with the Secretary of State’s office, preparatory to signature-gathering on petitions, that would cap hospital CEO pay at 15 times the salary of the lowest-paid employee; require hospitals to spend at least 5 percent of their costs on charity care; require hospitals to post costs for common procedures; limit prices at larger hospitals; and require public posting of hospital quality-of-care data.

You needn’t be a raving occupier or a devoted fan of the rolling debacle known as Obamacare or even a purple-windbreaker wearer to find some intriguing ideas, worth at least some further discussion, in this mix. Certainly if we’re going to be pushing consumers to make more decisions about their health care — and that’s the direction we should be going, rather than getting government even more entangled in the system than it already is — then they’ll need a lot more information than they have now.

Whether that ought to be compelled by legal mandate or by introducing more competition to the system, and how much doing either might add to or cut the cost of health care, are also questions worthy of consideration.

A quick perusal of this year’s initiative filings to Washington’s secretary of state doesn’t turn up anything similar. No matter. Even if those initiatives don’t make it to the Oregon ballot, or get voter approval, the underlying issues are already in play on this side of the Columbia. And if those issues do get a place on the ballot in Oregon, you can absolutely count on hearing about them, maybe until you’re sick of them, in this state. Not that that’s a covered medical condition.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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