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Aug. 14, 2020

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Electric rate hike may be coming down line

Clark Public Utilities sets meeting to address budget shortfall

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A lousy economy may force commissioners with Clark Public Utilities to balance the books by raising electric rates.

The three elected commissioners, hearing a grim forecast Tuesday, set a special meeting for 9 a.m. Aug. 3 to discuss a possible rate hike. The meeting will be at the Clark Public Utilities Electric Center, 1200 Fort Vancouver Way.

Utility staff suggested boosting rates anywhere between 3 percent and 6 percent by Sept. 1 to offset a projected year-end budget shortfall of almost $17 million on a $388.6 million electric system budget. If commissioners agree to move ahead, they would hold a public hearing on Aug. 10, followed by formal adoption of the rate increase on Aug. 17.

Commissioners enacted a 5 percent rate increase — the first since 2003 — in January 2009.

Utility commissioners opted against raising rates when they adopted this year’s budget at the end of 2009, choosing to hold rates steady in the face of a severe recession. However, the stagnant economy may force commissioners’ hands: Raise rates soon, or face the possibility of failing to meet minimum financial requirements to repay bonds.

“Or, we can cross our fingers and hope,” said Wayne Nelson, the utility’s general manager.

Sales down in 2010

Electric sales fell well below projections during the first half of the year, due in part to mild weather and budget-conscious customers. The utility also was stung by lower-than-anticipated prices for surplus power it sold from its River Road Generating Plant, in addition to costs associated with its voter-mandated wind farm investment and a $5.2 million increase in the cost of wholesale power purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration.

Nelson said the utility has frozen wages, reduced travel and curtailed large capital expenditures.

“There’s not a lot to cut,” Nelson said.

The utility’s average residential customer burns 1,500 kilowatt-hours a month, generating a bill of $122.75. A rate increase between 3 percent and 6 percent would raise that monthly bill by $3.45 or $6.88, respectively.

Commissioner Nancy Barnes, who is running for re-election this fall, said she’s especially concerned about the bigger chunk paid by the average commercial business that currently pays $714.70 per month.

“My fear is we have a lot of small businesses teetering on the edge,” she said.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.

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