'We're Overspending': Lewis County PUD Commissioner Calls for Cutbacks After Rate Hike Suggested

·3 min read

Jul. 21—Lewis County residents could face another price hike in their utility bills if the local Public Utilities District (PUD) heeds the warning of a new consulting report.

Washington-based FCS Group told commissioners this week that Lewis County PUD is eating into its reserves. By 2027, reserved capital funds could dip into the negatives.

In the big picture, FCS's Sergey Tarasov said Tuesday the PUD is doing well, financially. But without a rate increase, capital needs won't be properly funded.

One option to keep up with inflation, Tarasov introduced, would be an annual 2% rate increase.

For an average residential customer, it would amount to a monthly bill of $123.07 being boosted to $133.21 by 2025.

But another rate hike is out of the question for newly-elected Commissioner Michael Kelly, the TransAlta employee who last year ran on the promise to restrict spending and keep rates stagnant.

"I think we're overspending. I think we need to cut back. I don't think there should be a rate increase for anyone," Kelly said during the FCS presentation. "The community at large elected me here recently. Over 15,000 people here said my idea to keep costs flat is the one they want."

In 2020, Kelly beat out incumbent Ben Kostick, who sat on the PUD commission for 14 consecutive years and spoke about expanding broadband in Lewis County while campaigning to keep his seat.

This week, Kelly evoked voters to appeal to fellow commissioner Tim Cournyer, whose term began in 2017.

"You're up for re-election soon here, Tim, so the voters are going to decide. And I can tell you this right now, that's how they feel. So some cutbacks, I think, are necessary to keep the cost flat," he said, adding later: "Our community is a low-income community."

Lewis County PUD raised rates by 4.75% in 2020. A 1.9% increase also went into effect Jan. 1 of this year — that was bumped down from an original 2.6% proposed increase.

During the pandemic, thousands of customers fell behind on their payments. The PUD has waived a total of $471,000 in late fees since the onset of COVID-19, and as of July 15, 1,137 customers were at the "disconnect notice stage." A statewide moratorium on disconnecting utilities currently extends until Sept. 30.

At the same time, the PUD's 10-year strategic plan lays out several new and ongoing projects, including $27.4 million in substation rehabilitation. The goal is to rebuild or remodel at least two substations per year.

On Tuesday, PUD General Manager Chris Roden also described a need for investment in South Lewis County, where a southern transmission loop — estimated to run $830,000 — could improve grid reliability, reduce outage times and make maintenance safer.

An estimated $12 million is also sketched out for "new construction or significant rehabilitation" to the PUD's main Chehalis facility, and $9.7 million is estimated for advanced metering technology.

Rate increases — if implemented at all — are still likely months away. FCS' presentation suggested rate implementation would come after budget development this fall.

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