By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) ratepayers will most likely see a 1.5-percent increase in their base rate next year to raise additional revenue for projects to rebuild aging infrastructure. Projects include design and construction at the Tonasket substation and the Okanogan-Brewster transmission line.
A 1.5-percent increase would bring the base rate for residential service to $36.54, up from $36. The per-kilowatt-hour charge would not change. Rates were last increased in September 2017, when the base rate went up by $1 and the kilowatt-hour charge by 2 percent.
The upgrades are included in the utility’s $55.7-million budget for 2019. The budget calls for $55.7 million in revenue, $49.6 million in expenditures, and $3.7 million in debt service. The PUD commissioners adopted the budget at their Dec. 17 meeting.
To raise electric rates, the commissioners have to adopt a separate resolution. The PUD plans to do a rate study in the coming year to plan for the next decade, General Manager Steve Taylor said at the meeting.
After last year’s rate increases, the average residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours paid $1.79 more per month. Those rate hikes were imposed to bring in $10 million to cover debt service on bonds for three projects — half for a new transformer at the Tonasket substation and a smaller transformer at the Ellisforde-Whitestone substation, and the other half to replace the Okanogan-Ophir transmission line.
That transmission-line project was expanded last year to go from Okanogan to Brewster, not just Ophir, which added $5 million to the projected cost, according to Sheila Corson, community relations coordinator for the PUD.
Overall, capital projects and construction planned for 2019 will cost $19.6 million. The biggest capital projects are the Okanogan-Brewster line, at $4.125 million, and the Tonasket substation, at $3.32 million. If approved, the increase in the base rate will also go toward debt service for these projects.
The budget includes $4 million for Enloe Dam. Although the PUD commissioners decided in November not to reenergize the dam, there are still expenses connected with it. Those include monitoring, safety work, dewatering to inspect the dam infrastructure, and legal and contractual services to determine the fate of the dam, said Corson.
The PUD intends to lower some rates. The commissioners approved a resolution to reduce what the utility charges wholesale customers for broadband access. The PUD hopes the lower rates will make the PUD’s broadband connections more competitive, thereby attracting new customers and allowing existing customers to upgrade their services. The PUD sells broadband access only to internet-service providers and businesses, not directly to the public.
Retail electric sales are projected to drop by $336,000 — to $47.5 million. But wholesale sales are expected to increase by $657,000 because the PUD will have additional power to sell on the open market.
The PUD’s largest expenditure is purchasing power. That’s going down by $346,400, to $23.9 million.
The PUD is still getting reimbursements for losses incurred in the 2014 and 2015 wildfires. In all, the PUD has spent about $16 million to repair power and fiber-optic lines damaged in the fires. The utility received $10.5 million in reimbursements and are still awaiting $1.38 million from state and federal agencies, according to a PUD summary of fire-related expenses. The PUD anticipates more than $700,000 in reimbursements next year.
The PUD is also expecting $450,000 in reimbursements from the Bonneville Power Administration for programs that provide rebates to ratepayers for energy efficiencies, such as new windows and energy-efficient lights, said Corson.
Wages are going up an average of 3 percent, although there are two fewer positions, eliminated through attrition and the decision not to fill a job, said Corson.