As national and state economies continue to struggle, they face growing budget shortfalls and are forced to make cuts to numerous programs. One movement attempting to bring control of the economy back to the people is that of the Oregon Public Power Coalition (OPPC).
In hopes of starting a People’s Utility District (PUD) within the Portland metro area, OPPC has been gathering signatures from voters since July 2002 in order to place the deciding measure on the September 2003 ballot.
Proponents of the new PUD hope to see Multnomah County utility district deprivatized, taking control of local utilities from executive management and shareholders and placing it in the hands of the ratepayers, Liz Trojan, OPPC treasurer, said. She explained that the process begins with ratepayers who feel the need to reclaim their resources.
“People get together and say, ‘We don’t want to be at the whim of corporations, we live here, we want to run it, we want to manage it,'” she said.
Benefits are numerous, with the possibility of a 10- to 30-percent decrease in rates, Trojan said.
“We would pay no federal taxes, there would be no shareholders and we would get lower rates on bonds, which are all virtues of being a PUD,” she said. “Plus there would be no exorbitantly paid executives. The CEO of PGE makes just under a million dollars (a year), while the head of the Los Angeles PUD makes only $200,000.”
In addition to financial improvements, public ownership also has the potential for added security.
“PGE has been for sale four times in the last five years,” she said. “If we outsource it again to a for-profit corporation, it will be back to Enron and sitting around getting ripped off.”
With public ownership also comes public control, Trojan explained. If voters approve the PUD in Multnomah County, they will appoint a board of five representatives to oversee the actions made by managers and staff. Since there are no shareholders, whatever decisions are made will be in the best interest of ratepayers alone, she said.
Changes can include increased focus on environmentally friendly alternatives to current practices, as well as additional funding dedicated to renewable energy, weatherization and subsidies to low-income homes. While PGE already donates some of its profits to such programs, it has consistently underfunded them, especially when compared to existing PUDs, Trojan said.
“People should have a response to that,” she said. “Fine, PGE is helping poor people pay for their energy, but if the economy hadn’t been gutted by Enron, they would have jobs and wouldn’t need help.”
Employees of PGE have also been speaking out against current company practices.
“PGE has some of the hardest-working, most dedicated line workers in the utility business,” said Dave Covington, a journeyman lineman for PGE. “But you wouldn’t know it with all this extra management tripping all over each other tooting their own horns. Morale could not get much worse at this outfit. I think it is high time for serious change at PGE. We need real local control with accountability.”
Supporters of OPPC expect the creation of a new PUD to have positive effects on the local economy, with lower rates for home and business owners, as well as the opportunity to “keep money local,” she explained. The effects are expected to be noticed throughout the area, and with Portland State University spending approximately $2 million on electricity a year, students are likely to experience a benefit as well.
OPPC’s campaign is centered largely around the fact PGE is currently owned by Enron. The coalition hopes to bring an end to the controversy currently surrounding Portland utilities.
Public support has been increasing, but OPPC recognizes the struggle before them.
Though they successfully gathered the required amount signatures from Multnomah County residents and had the petition certified by the Office of Energy in February, the largest hurtles are yet to come, Trojan explained.
“PGE will spend massive amounts of money to defeat the PUD,” she said. “We can’t afford TV commercials or radio spots. But we do have a chance at public ownership if enough people get involved. The question is, will they?”
Legislators have already attempted to pass a bill preventing the creation of a PUD in Portland as part of an effort to hold onto federal and state tax income. OPPC will also have to overcome the political influence that PGE holds in Oregon, Trojan explained.
“PGE is very powerful politically,” she said. “Very few officials have gotten elected without having taken money from PGE, especially in Portland.”
Having already begun to speak out against the possible takeover, PGE representatives have been attempting to spread awareness as well, in an effort to counter the public power movement.
“They don’t lie so much as deceive,” Trojan said. “They point out that Tacoma has experienced a 60 percent increase in their PUD rates, but fail to mention that those rates are still lower than PGE’s.”
Deane Funk, from Government Affairs at PGE, said that while the possibility of a PUD in Multnomah County was dependent almost entirely upon voters, the creation of public power in Portland is “a bad idea and will cost people a lot of money.”
“It would be condemnation, a hostile takeover,” he said. “There is no assurance that rates will go down, it’s likely that they will go up.”
While PUDs are not uncommon and can be found in McMinnville, Canby, Clark County, Tacoma, Seattle, Lincoln City, as well as various other locations, most existing publicly owned utilities were acquired during the 1930s. Funk explained that newly created PUDs face challenges that existing districts do not.
He admitted that while a PUD may have access to cheaper hydropower than PGE and other for-profit corporations, there are no precedents in Oregon involving the type of legal action that OPPC is proposing.
“It’s very complex and very risky,” he said. “Even if everything went perfectly and a 10 percent lowering of rates was possible, would it be worth the risk for the public to spend billions of dollars for a 10 percent decrease?”
For more information regarding OPPC, go to www.oppc.net, or contact them by e-mail at [email protected]