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The Oregonian

County board votes to send PUD formation to voters



Multnomah County voters will decide Nov. 4 if a people's utility district should be formed to provide electricity in areas now served by the corporations Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp.

The county Board of Commissioners set the district boundaries and election date Thursday, though two of the five commissioners surprised some by voting against the resolution.

Oregon law says that the commissioners shall determine the boundaries and set an election after receiving a petition. But all commissioners, including those who said voters should decide, expressed sharp concerns that the district is not a good idea. Several urged that residents vote no.

The board supports the city of Portland's exploration of a public purchase of PGE from bankrupt Enron, a point that some district chief petitioners said may have influenced the board's reaction.

Commissioners Serena Cruz and Lonnie Roberts and county Chairwoman Diane Linn supported the boundary and election resolution. But Commissioners Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey voted against it.

"Based on the hearing and testimony we have received, I strongly believe a district should not be formed," Naito said. "I believe this proposal makes no sense, and I cannot in good conscience send the measure to the voters for consideration."

Naito noted legal issues on who could be included -- PacifiCorp maintains that Portland should be out -- and said that the scope of the PUD's condemnation authority over the utilities would lead to years of litigation. Rojo agreed with Naito and said too many questions remain after the brief hearing and review period. They said they don't know what would happen to electricity rates and that the boundaries would create a fractured service delivery system.

The proposed boundary excludes the Rockwood and Interlachen public utility districts and areas with too few voters.

Cruz, who headed the utility district hearing process, said she supports the city-county effort to buy PGE and does not take a position on the PUD. She referred to utility district laws, drafted in the 1930s, as "archaic and potentially outdated." And she said that the process had not provided an independent, objective analysis of the PUD proposal.

PUD opponents said commissioners' remarks echoed their own. Once the public understands the problems "and that they've set up a Swiss cheese island" for utility service, said Fred Miller, executive vice president of PGE, "no one is going to vote for it."

The impact on rates and the tax base will not be clear to voters, said Bernie Bottomly, community relations director for PacifiCorp. "We're prepared to have a conversation with the voters about the PUD," he said. "We feel they will come to the same conclusions" as commissioners.

Mara Woloshin, representing a committee of individuals called Citizens Against the Government Takeover, said the board's questions "echoed a lot of my concerns," including cost complexities, a risk of losing reliable electricity and jobs and the potential for higher taxes.

But two of the PUD's chief petitioners said most concerns are unfounded or just unfair. Elizabeth Trojan and Judith Barnes found irony in the rate questions after also hearing people talk about social service cuts during the board's budget hearing earlier that day.

With a nonprofit PUD the rates will be lower "and we'll keep those dollars at home," said Trojan.

Barnes said that providing data to show how rates would be reduced was not the responsibility of petitioners. She noted that the November ballot will include a vote on a one-time levy to pay for an engineer's report and the election. "That information comes at that time," she said, and a later election on revenue bonds would be held.

Also, she said, the existing system of power delivery already resembles Swiss cheese.

Although the utility district is a better alternative than city purchase, both said, the goal is still public power. If the city prevailed and could provide power "with a structure like the PUD, then that would meet the requirements of our effort," said Barnes.

But she said the city faces two huge hurdles: finding agreement with Enron on a purchase price and adjoining counties not wanting Portland to run their energy systems.

The Multnomah County PUD is the first proposal to head for an election. The Oregon Public Power Coalition has petitioned for districts in seven other counties, which would work together to provide power, just as PUDs do in other parts of the nation, said Barnes. And every other PUD has provided electricity at rates lower than those previously offered by profit-making corporations, she said.

But even if the PUD is created, PGE's Miller says firmly, "We're not going to sell them the power generation. If you're asking a question about implementation, I don't think that's one we have to worry about."

Janet Christ: 503-294-5032; janetchrist@news.oregonian.com