Bills will increase for some Franklin Public Utility District customers this fall, particularly those using the least energy, but average users and those with the heaviest power demands will see few changes or even pay less.
The PUD commission unanimously approved raising the basic rate for residential customers to $34, up from the current $22.90, during its meeting Tuesday afternoon. The basic rate for small general users also increased, from $29.86 to $38. The rate increases begin Sept. 1.
However, that increase is accompanied by a drop in what the PUD charges per kilowatt-hour. That will decline from just over 7 cents to a little more than 6 cents. The net effect is an increase of $1.27 a month on customers currently paying about $122 per month — the average bill of a district customer.
With the cost of electricity going up, commissioners said the rate change is necessary so all aspects of the district’s services are paying for themselves.
“Because we have to have the infrastructure there, no matter how much they use, I’ve resolved to myself the need for a higher basic charge,” said Commissioner Roger Wright.
The district’s rate advisory committee recommended the rate increase to commissioners in April and public forums were held in June and early July. Early on, there were concerns that the higher cost to customers with the lowest use could possibly be a burden on low-income residents.
However, commissioners and PUD staff said that low-income users are more likely to need the same level of energy as average users, as they tend to live in homes that are less energy efficient and need more power to heat and cool.
Low power users often have their own solar arrays, may live in the area only part of the year or are small irrigators using pumps.
Commissioner Bill Gordon said he voted for the new rates even though they would cause his own bill to increase because he uses a solar array to power much of his home.
“I don’t want others to subsidize me,” he said.
And this likely won’t be the last rate increase for the PUD. The rate advisory committee also recommended a possible increase of up to 5 percent in the spring. General Manager Tim Nies said that would be reexamined this winter but any rate increase likely won’t be as much as initially projected.
Wright said the bulk of the district’s expenses — the cost of electricity — is not something the commission can control.
The PUD buys about 85 percent of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration. In October 2013, BPA’s wholesale power rates increased an average of 9 percent, with about 6 percent directly affecting the Franklin PUD, said the agency.
BPA also increased its transmission rates by 13 percent, and it plans an increase of 7.1 percent in October.
Raising rates isn’t the only way to address the PUD’s revenue issues, said Roger Lenk, a west Pasco resident who frequently challenges local governments and agencies. He called for the commissioners to review and audit the district’s overhead expenses as a way of ensuring everything is running efficiently.
“The folks you have are paid extremely well,” Lenk said. “Their benefits are better than those of my previous employer.” Lenk previously worked for the city of Richland.
Wright said that, while Lenk made good points, the PUD also must offer competitive pay to attract good personnel, though Franklin PUD does not pay the most compared to other utilities in the state.
“The fact is this is one of the highest paid industries in Washington,” Wright said.