Tacoma Public Utilities Director Bill Gaines earned mostly high marks during his annual review.
The TPU board, a slate of five appointed members, lauded his financial acumen, attention to detail and the utility’s performance.
Comparatively, he stumbled, some board members said, in his relationships with the TPU board and the elected City Council. To help with that, a board member said Gaines should create a liaison between the appointed TPU board and the elected City Council.
Comments on Gaines’ review are not attributed to specific board members.
His latest review reflects his performance in 2015 during a time when the utility unveiled a controversial plan to lease the city-owned cable and internet provider called Click to a private company.
For several months starting in January a group comprised of elected and appointed members studied what to do with Click. Their work could be unveiled as early as next month.
The utility board’s review praised a move to keep power rate increases low by spending some reserves. Tacoma Power recently paid back $122 million in bonds for the electric system — about 24 percent of Tacoma Power’s outstanding debt at the time, Gaines said. As a result, TPU won’t have to make interest payments on that debt. This allows TPU to have lower rate increases than it otherwise would for the next several budget seasons.
Gaines said Thursday that the plan is to “spend down the cash we have,” rather than borrow money for projects.
In Gaines’ review, members called the addition of a community solar project a “significant positive step” in 2015. They want to see Tacoma Power build on that success by developing more renewable resources “and engaging the community in the support of technology to address climate change.”
Management should also pay more attention to the developing electric vehicle market, one board member said. Gaines said the utility developed an electric vehicle leadership team in 2011. The group used federal funds to pay for eight charging stations at the TPU headquarters on 38th Street and in Old Town.
In an interview, Gaines boiled down concerns about his relationships with the TPU board and council to communication differences. Last year, the City Council said he should work more closely with city hall.
Though TPU is considered a Tacoma government agency, the utility operates somewhat separately from the rest of city government. Before last year, the City Council never had a say in who the utility director is. Residents voted to change the city charter, which now allows the City Council to confirm the director’s appointment and reconfirm every two years.
Last year, the council reconfirmed Gaines in a 7-1 vote.
Gaines said he’s continuing to meet monthly with Mayor Marilyn Strickland and City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Gaines also is visiting quarterly with the committee chairs of several city council committees.
“We are trying to lay out issues of common interest so they aren’t surprised by things,” Gaines said.
Board member Mark Patterson, who was selected as this year’s board chairman, said Friday that Gaines is up to the challenge.
“Whenever I’ve been involved in these reviews, the board always sees something they’d like to see improvement on,” Patterson said. “He takes it to heart.”
During a Wednesday TPU meeting, board member Bryan Flint, who was recently selected for a second, five-year term by the Tacoma City Council, said Gaines takes “the long view.”
“He’s done a lot to break down silos between the three different utilities,” Flint said, referring to TPU’s utility divisions for power, water and rail. He also praised a plan to hire more diverse employees and more women.
Gaines, who became TPU director in 2007, is on a five-year employment contract that expires next year. His base pay for 2016 is $338,229 — the same as 2015.