BI wants more information from PSE

Puget Sound Energy doesn’t have to listen. But the Bainbridge Island City Council hopes it does.

“We can’t compel them to do anything, but we do have a loud voice,” Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said at Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

City staff drafted a letter to PSE regarding its “Missing Link” project that would construct an electric transmission line between the Murden Cove and Winslow substations. In general, councilmembers said the letter did not take a strong enough tone and lacked innovation. The council wants to put it on a future agenda to hear from the public.

Councilmember Michael Pollock called the PSE plan “outdated” with nothing about battery storage. Councilmember Leslie Schneider said something similar about power from solar panels. Councilmember Joe Deets said it lacks onsite power generation for when the grid goes down. He challenged PSE to join with the city regarding climate change implementation.

Mayor Rasham Nassar questioned the entire project. She said PSE has not explained the need. “What’s the scope of the problem?” she asked, adding it seems like power outages last only a few hours a few days each year. While PSE says it’s had a lot of public outreach and engagement, Nassar said she’s heard from many people “who are just now learning about this.”

Schneider said she’s unclear about the pros and cons of the five routes; Deets said he wants input from the Climate Change Advisory Committee and Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said she wants to see innovation from PSE regarding the south end, which has more outages than the rest of BI.

“At the end of the day the utility is responsible for electric needs,” city manager Blair King said.

The new line and upgrades elsewhere would improve service, along with reducing the frequency and duration of power outages, PSE says.

Overall, the city supports the effort, saying clean and dependable energy is important to the city’s Climate Action Plan and critical for electric vehicles, leading to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the city is concerned about equity, the environment and community health, which could be affected by the project. Its letter mentions route options near vulnerable populations, such as schools and child care centers. Routes near wetlands and heritage trees were also questioned. Also questioned in King’s letter is the cost-benefit of an underground line, especially since fallen transmission lines can obstruct roads. At a minimum, underground should be considered near Fire Station 21’s emergency helipad.

Budget review

Also at the meeting, DeWayne Pitts, city finance director, gave a review of the mid-year budget. It was mentioned it was a few months late.

He said the city is doing well financially, with revenues ahead of last year by 10% and ahead of the adopted budget by $2 million. For the year it’s up $4.8 million, or 27%. One of the reasons is businesses reopening after COVID-19 restrictions, so sales taxes are up 20%. Also, real estate sales have skyrocketed during COVID, so that excise tax is up 46%.

Along with that, spending is down, due in large part to 15 staff vacancies. The city has only spent 40% of what it expected to. “Like any employer we’re having trouble filling positions,” King said, adding they can’t get work done they want as a result.

Other good economic news includes unemployment at 5.1% compared to double that a year ago. On the bad side, inflation of 5.4% is the highest in 13 years. Interest rates are scheduled to go up twice by the end of the year as a result, Pitts added.

Housing density

In a new part of the meeting, the council talked about whether it should bring to a future agenda a discussion on affordable housing density on property owned by religious groups.

Much of the time was spent complaining about how much time was spent talking about the issue. “This is a discussion to discuss,” Deets said. “Let’s save the speeches for later.”

Schneider said it should be about asking staff what kind of information should be brought back to the council. King agreed it’s about more information, not the merits of the proposal.

Still, everyone seemed to want to weigh in on the topic.

Hytopoulos said she strongly supports the proposal. Councilmember Christy Carr said it’s just the type of tool that could generate affordable housing on the island.

Pollock said even though it sounds good he is concerned it could increase density into conservation areas. “Is this consistent with the values of this community?” he asked.

Nassar said she is concerned it could increase density away from Winslow. She asked for staff to find out how many religious properties are on BI, and how much acreage that could be. “It could completely change Bainbridge Island forever,” she said.

Two councilmembers took shots at that comment.

“It’s not scary development. It’s exactly like the projects we’d like to see,” Hytopoulos said.

Carr called Nassar’s comment “saber-rattling,” “scaring people” and “disingenuous.”

Later, Nassar defended her “speech. We’re establishing a new format here. The public has a right to know why we want to put it on the agenda. I call it transparency.”

Does Bigfoot exist?

The council decided that King and his staff can decide if there should be a section on the city website devoted to explain Fact v. Fiction regarding things people hear in the community. Coronado, CA had such a page when King was city manager there. King said the page would focus on issues, not politics.

“It looks to me like were trying to solve a problem we don’t have,” Fantroy-Johnson said. “I don’t want to be involved in any rumor squashing.”

“We have other stuff to talk about,” Carr said, adding if it becomes a problem then the council would need to step in.

“Just do it,” Hytopoulos said. “There are a lot of myths and fiction out there.”

Nassar called it “council creep.”

Pollock joked the first item should be, “Does Bigfoot exist?”

9-11 proclamation

Cmdr. Gary Sakuma of the American Legion on Bainbridge Island invited councilmembers to a small ceremony there Saturday to honor victims and heroes of 9-11. The council passed a proclamation doing the same thing.

“The price of freedom is high,” Sakuma said. “It’s our duty and obligation to honor these people.” His comments were followed by a moment of silence.