Coming soon: Raid on Tacoma utilities

The News TribuneFebruary 11, 2014 

Tacomans have begun the once-in-a-decade process of considering changes to their city charter. As sure as the tide rises on the shores of Commencement Bay, this will involve a political grab for control of Tacoma Public Utilities.

Elected officials have long chafed at the fact that the charter prevents the City Council from calling the shots at Tacoma’s power, water and other utilities. Over the years, city politicians have gazed greedily upon utility revenues.

The charter does empower the council to appoint the public utility board that oversees TPU, and TPU’s budgets are subject to council approval. Beyond that, though, the utilities are largely independent.

And thank heaven. It’s likely Tacomans — and many of the city’s neighbors — would be paying substantially more for their electricity if not for that independence. The Northwest energy crisis of 2000-2001 demonstrated how politics twists utility decisions — and how independence serves ratepayers.

When electricity got scarce and rates exploded 14 years ago, TPU leaders quickly proposed a steep, very unpopular but short-term rate increase to stay on top of wholesale power costs. Tacoma Power also had a $130 million cash reserve set aside for just such unanticipated expenses.

The result, long term, was that Tacoma Power wound up with a modest $35 million debt.

Seattle wasn’t into the prudence thing. Seattle City Light — directly controlled by the Seattle City Council — held back on rate increases and wound up with a $1.7 billion debt.

As an institution, the Tacoma City Council isn’t any more likely to look at the long term. Exhibit A is the condition of the city’s neighborhood streets, many of which are so pitted and cratered that they’d be at home in a particularly distressed third world nation.

Streets are not sexy. They don’t rally campaign volunteers. They don’t promise pay raises to union workers. It’s very easy to let the asphalt and concrete slowly rot while ratcheting up spending on more popular things.

The public got a taste of what politicized utilities would look like last year, when the council wanted to tax Tacoma’s electrical, telephone and natural gas services.

Faced with opposition, council members insisted that electrical ratepayers wouldn’t be out of pocket, because Tacoma Power would magically absorb the tax.

Part of the magic involved targeting the utility’s cash reserves — precisely the fund that helped rescue ratepayers in the energy crisis.

When the inevitable attack on TPU’s independence materializes, citizens should look at history. Tacoma’s utility leaders have a record of looking ahead decades. Its elected council has a record of looking ahead to the next election. Who is more qualified to maintain a dam?

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