UAC vice chair accused by colleague of distorting ‘many facts’ in column | Guest Column | Oct. 21

Your Oct. 14 edition contains a guest opinion piece by Arlene Buetow (“City needs to act in best interest of ratepayers”) recommending transfer of the city’s water utility to the Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD).

Although Ms. Buetow decries “campaign hyperbole” and “unending dialogue,” her piece contributes to more of the same by making unsubstantiated claims and offering serious distortions of many facts that have come out as the city’s Utility Advisory Committee (UAC) has deliberated on this matter.

As a member of the UAC, I have attended public discussions on this since June 2010 and would like to correct facts that have been misrepresented in the article.

Ms. Buetow says that the city “relies on utility monies to subsidize island-wide governmental responsibilities and to balance the city budget.”

This is a serious charge unsubstantiated by any facts presented in her piece. The water utility is accounted separately from the remainder of city government.

This is in accordance with state law and responsible municipal practice. COBI administration allocates staff time to the water utility based on time spent on water utility business.

The UAC has received no information substantiating Ms. Buetow’s claim. If she is referring to the recent loan of water utility reserve funds to the sewer utility, these funds were loaned in accordance with state law and have been returned to the water utility with interest. There does not appear to be any impropriety here.

Ms. Buetow says that “the decision concerning the disposition of the water utility was delayed pending the city’s Utility Business Advisor’s (UBA) Report … (but) the Report … failed to address … many of these essential issues.”

The city’s decision on transferring the utility was quite rightly delayed until after independent, highly experienced consultants had completed an analysis of the costs and consequences of such a transfer.

This objective and expert report was requested by both the city administration and the UAC, and authorized by the City Council.

It clarified that COBI can dramatically reduce rates based on current staffing levels with additional reductions in customer billings due to reductions in state and local taxes.

This analysis has shown that the reduced rate would be comparable to rates that would be charged by alternative suppliers, including KPUD.

The report was essentially complete several months ago, but delay of a UAC recommendation on the issue was requested by then UAC Chair Dave Ward and Vice Chair Buetow. Minutes of these delay requests were not posted to the city’s web site as required by city code.

Ms. Buetow says that the conclusions of the report are “fatally flawed because they include neither an implementation plan nor a budget under which the projected results could be achieved.”

Actually, the report discusses implementation in considerable detail and presents budgets for two different strategies for reduced rates, corresponding to different levels of COBI staffing. The report is available on the city website for any interested citizen to read.

She writes that “the city’s water utility is not competitive and has no credible plan to be so.” Actually, the UAC has recommended and the City Council has approved and staff is implementing a 34 percent rate reduction that will make average water rates very competitive.

Ms. Buetow says that “ratepayers are assured a higher level of service for a lower monthly cost under the KPUD.”

But the detailed analysis by the UBA and the UAC indicates that COBI rates could well be lower than KPUD rates for low-volume water users and that the level of service would be similar. While both COBI and KPUD discourage high levels of consumption by higher, tiered consumption charges, the city rate is more punitive to large water users and less so to smaller users than the KPUD rate.

In the last three years, the KPUD has increased its rates each year and these increases are scheduled to continue through 2014 (6 percent in 2013 and 3 percent in 2014). In the last three years, COBI rates have remained flat until the Council recently implemented a 34 percent reduction.

I am reluctant to speak out on this until the UAC has been able to deliver a formal recommendation to the council, which the UAC is expected to do within the next two weeks.

My concern, however, is that Ms. Buetow’s opinion piece, coupled with her encouragement of delay of this recommendation while vice chair of the UAC, may cause voters in this election season to vote for a candidate who has taken a position on this issue without considering all of these facts.

Randal Samstag is a consulting engineer and a member of the city’s Utility Advisory Committee.

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