Tacoma’s debate over the future of the Click cable network, and the simmering question of who should pay for Click’s money-losing foray into retail internet and phone service, now has another set of hands stirring the pot.
State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, has served up some eleventh-hour legislation that even he might concede is redundant. Senate Bill 5921 would make it absolutely clear for those who still haven’t seen the light (read: Tacoma City Hall) that a local government cannot use revenue from electric utility ratepayers to subsidize commercial telecommunication services.
O’Ban has said he believes state law already precludes Tacoma from sticking the cost of its controversial Click expansion on the backs of Tacoma Public Utilities customers. We’ve said the same thing.
A plan by Tacoma leaders to shift $20 million in capital from Tacoma Power ratepayers to modernize Click’s fiber optic system is not only a reckless gamble, it also violates the city charter and state law. Tacoma’s city attorney (now interim city manager) said as much in a memo she wrote in 2015.
The table is set for someone to sue over the continued bailouts of Click. Its fingers-crossed transition from struggling municipal cable operator to viable broadband competitor is projected to cost electric ratepayers $14.7 million over the first two years. That rounds to a tidy $3.43 monthly subsidy per customer.
Legal action already is looming as a result of the high-priced history of TPU subsidies. Three former Tacoma city officials filed a claim in February, demanding that Tacoma Power be remunerated for $21 million it spent over several years to underwrite Click.
So why would state politicians try to intervene now? Why not wait for the court system to do its work? Why not let Tacoma officials get the results of an outside audit designed to tell them whether the “all-in” model is prudent to pursue?
Some may sniff about overreach from Olympia. Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a chief proponent of the “all-in” plan, told a News Tribune reporter “ it looks like the state Legislature now is trying to put its thumb on the scale.”
But we’d offer that O’Ban, in his role as 28th Legislative District senator, brings a voice to the Click debate that’s too often ignored. He has constituents in University Place and Lakewood who are TPU customers but can’t subscribe to Click; it’s plainly unfair that they would pay more so that Tacomans can enjoy gigabit-speed internet service.
O’Ban’s legislation has just one co-sponsor, Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup. It’s not going anywhere in 2017 because it was filed too late. But it provides food for thought as Tacoma policymakers move forward.
Really, though, the specter of mounting legal bills ought to be reason enough for them to drop this hot mess of an idea to go “all in” with other people’s money.