The Snohomish County PUD: Who are you?

Note: This essay was first published in the Marysville Globe on Nov. 21, 2001.


THE SNOHOMISH COUNTY PUD: WHO ARE YOU?

By Dave Aldrich

 

Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing—turn out your toes when you walk—and remember who you are!

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

For most of its fifty-plus years of existence, the Snohomish County Public Utility District earned a unique status in the community: it was largely ignored. Apart from the days of WPPSS, the nuclear debacle that drove electricity rates through the roof, the PUD has operated in relative obscurity. When the utility conducted a survey of its customers a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of respondents knew virtually nothing about the PUD, its structure or operations. The people did not know that three, part-time elected officials called ‘commissioners’ govern the organization and set its policies. The people did not know that the PUD is a nonprofit entity owned by its ratepayers. The people knew but one thing, that the utility delivered electricity and mailed out bills every month or two, and only a very small percentage of customers had any contact with the PUD, aside from sending in a check. But customers may be forced to start paying attention, now that the PUD’s rates have climbed by over sixty percent in the last eighteen months to the highest level of any utility in the state.

Our story begins a half-decade ago with talk of deregulation. The PUD managers at first feared the threatened restructuring of the electric utility industry. What would happen to the PUD? Would it lose customers? Would it be gobbled up by some huge international conglomerate? If managers weren’t in meetings fretting about deregulation, they were e-mailing one another, poring over the latest industry news reports, or listening intently to an endless stream of experts counseling organizational change as the only way to survive in the brave new world of deregulation. Management heeded the call, and set about to create a different focus. It cast off the utility’s better nature and began emphasizing the need to compete.

“One of the hard realizations of the new, more competitive industry is a new paradigm for all business lines,” said the PUD’s then-general manager Dick Johnson in the summer of 1997. “In order to keep our rates competitive, we must find state-of-the-art efficiency within all areas of our organization. Even our traditional utility lines will have to…meet, and exceed, the industry standards …in order to be competitive. At the same time, our competitive business lines will have to produce positive revenue…If we can’t be competitive doing the work, then we have to get out of the business line.” Mr. Johnson, as you can plainly see, was obsessed with competition. But, as events would quickly prove, the general manager and his direct reports mapped out an ill-conceived strategy that has transformed the PUD from a very good and quiet electric distribution utility to an organization that has forgotten why it exists—to reliably deliver affordable electricity to its present and future customers in a socially responsible manner.

Known as ‘the Business Plan,’ the strategy had the utility engaging in a virtually unlimited array of activities, from the traditional to the bizarre. One PUD manager vowed to “sell anything to anyone anywhere, even on Mars.” The utility would no longer fear deregulation, it would enthusiastically embrace it with bold initiatives designed “to produce positive revenue.” The managers launched dozens of new business ventures that sucked millions of dollars from a burgeoning budget and, in the end, delivered nothing but organizational distraction, huge cost overruns, and skyrocketing retail rates.

Besides hemorrhaging money, these initiatives were based on a completely inaccurate picture of the electric utility industry, which is unlikely to be restructured any time soon given California’s failed attempt at deregulation. Worse, no one in management had bothered to look at state law, which makes it nearly impossible to abolish or sell public utility districts.

Nor was the PUD at risk for losing customers and the revenues they generate. The logic was simple, but nevertheless difficult for management to understand. Distribution systems are monopolies. If you and I want electricity, we must get it from the electric grid that runs within and between our neighborhoods. For this, the PUD collects a “toll,” you might say. In addition, the PUD charges us—as a straight pass through—the cost of the power we consume. The toll and the energy fees add up to the retail rate, what we pay the PUD for the combination of electricity and related services. Thus, in a deregulated environment the PUD does not lose money if a customer chooses to buy power from some other entity, because the PUD will always assess the toll to pay for the non-power costs.

While Dick Johnson was relieved of his duties in 1998, all of his mischievous direct reports, save one, remain. They are among the wealthiest government employees in the state. The new general manager’s salary exceeds those of the governor and the supreme court justices. Yet, why should these people worry? Despite having the highest retail rates in the state of Washington, higher than even Puget’s, the PUD received effusive praise from the editors of the Everett Herald, who intoned, “The acceptance [by the public] of rate increases is a rather impressive sign of trust in the good judgment of the PUD.”

There is another explanation. The PUD’s customers are ignorant. They do not protest, because they do not know. The PUD spends a good chunk of your money telling you that all is well with your local public utility. And the propaganda works—just look at the Herald’s September 24 editorial. The PUD wants you to believe that the bad news—and there is plenty—is the fault of someone else, especially the Bonneville Power Administration, the utility’s favorite whipping boy. You are not supposed to know or care about such matters as the PUD’s failed business ventures; the outlandishly expensive, unwieldy, and grossly counter-productive computer systems; the utility’s silly overseas activities; and the outrageous contracts to replace the PUD’s share of the Centralia Coal Plant.

Better that you shiver in the dark.

 

Note: For six and a half years Dave Aldrich served as the policy analyst for PUD commissioner Chuck Moon, who died earlier this year. If you want detailed information about the utility and its decisions, please feel free to contact Dave by e-mail at daaldrich@earthlink.net.

UPDATE (Feb. 23, 2011): I am now a PUD commissioner. Ironic, yes?

Errands to run

Note: For several months in the 2001-2002 timeframe I wrote a semi-monthly column for the Marysville Globe, which I called ‘chin music,’ from my baseball-playing days. The one below is from Nov. 7, 2001.


ERRANDS TO RUN BEFORE I SLEEP

by David Aldrich

 

What sets the odometer reeling is something else. It is something less critical than life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. And that is errands.

— Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation

 

By the time you read this [2001], the results of the elections will be known for most, if not all, races. And there is a good chance that the status quo won—again. Meanwhile, the urgent problems identified by the candidates will worsen until the next cycle of political signs and campaign promises. This has been our legacy; it appears to be our destiny.

Last week I made several dozen phone calls on behalf of a candidate for county council. Most people would listen patiently to my spiel, but one person grumbled about a universal pet peeve—traffic. It’s getting worse, she said, and what are we going to do about it? I had to chuckle. For the topic has occupied center stage for the last decade or more. By all accounts, matters have gotten only worse. Nor should we expect them to improve any time soon.

There is a good reason for this. Each day we confront the cumulative impacts of our individual decisions to fulfill the American Dream, own at least two vehicles, and breed. All of this takes money, which means that each household requires one or more incomes derived from employment located many miles from our homes. Since we live in segregated enclaves, we must rely on the SUV to fetch groceries, chauffeur offspring to soccer and school, pray to God on Sunday mornings, and entertain ourselves at one of several pizza parlors dotting the proliferating strip malls that line our ugly thoroughfares.

Those who call themselves ‘planners’ assume that each new house built on the landscape will generate about a dozen vehicular trips a day. A tract of fifty homes means six hundred trips. A hundred homes represents over a thousand cars, trucks, mini-vans, and SUVs being dumped onto our local roadways.

From the individual’s perspective, each trip is merely an errand performed unconsciously, as if by habit. Bob needs a pair of pliers from Fred Meyer’s. Mary forgot to pick up the ice cream cake at B & R for her daughter’s birthday party. Nigel is out shopping for a new television. Sally has to bring the family dog to the vet for a shot. Jimmy’s teacher assigned a history project, so he wants a ride to the library. Viewed as a whole, however, these individual errands add up to traffic. As one commentator put it, “we are the jam.”

Those in public office and those who aspire to get there promise relief by laying more asphalt. Yet, each year the few roads that are built extend only to the entrances of new subdivisions.

If you want some depressing reading, take a look at your city’s annual transportation improvement plans, which identify and prioritize road projects along with their estimated costs. Then see which projects are actually undertaken and completed. You’ll learn not to get your hopes up for your favorite roadway improvement scheme. Chances are it won’t be built in your lifetime. And even if does get built, it won’t solve the problem.

Indeed, like most everything else in our towns and cities, population growth creates the need for expanded public infrastructure—like roads and sewers—which, in turn, induces further growth. Worse, our city officials depend on continued population growth to pay for the expansions. This vicious circle ensures that things gets bigger and more expensive while we are all forced to play a never-ending game of catch-up.

The persistence of this disturbing situation suggests that the problem of transportation—how to efficiently move everyone from Point A to Point B and back again—cannot be solved by simply building additional roads. One solution is to get people out of their cars. Yet our very patterns of development, what we call ‘sprawl,’ make that nearly impossible.

In pursuing the American Dream of home ownership, most of us have been forced to the edges of urban development, where land is relatively cheap and plentiful—especially if we care little for preserving agriculture, protecting local waterways, or safeguarding trees. The nearest grocery store is too far away to reach by foot. Besides, who would be caught dead these days toting a personal cart filled with a week’s worth of provisions? A walk to the library requires an overnight bag. Our children attend school via the world’s most expensive transportation system—the yellow school bus.

But the suburban genie has been too long out of the bottle to be stuffed back in. How could we overlay higher densities onto the sprawling landscape so that people could actually walk or ride their bikes from Point A to Point B? We appear to be incapable of building up; we know only how to spread out. We wouldn’t recognize a town center, because none of our town’s have them.

Developers and real estate agents tell us that sprawl succeeds because that’s how people choose to live. While none of us has a real choice (it’s either barracks-like apartments or single-family dwellings), as long as families continue to fill up the new subdivisions, sprawl continues. And with sprawl comes more vehicles.

As congestion increases, each election cycle yields candidates promising solutions. But don’t delude yourselves. None of those who capture your vote is about to alter the status quo; despite the increasing mess on our roadways, the office holders and their benefactors have done quite well by it, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, we all have our errands to run.

 

 

1999 Letter to Marysville Globe

Dear Editor:

Successful communities, I believe, gain sustenance from a densely populated, vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, and clearly identifiable place where people live, work, and play—all within a five-minute walk. If Marysville is to overcome the centrifugal forces of sprawl, which have denuded hillsides, polluted streams, and made community nearly impossible to achieve, it must redevelop itself using traditional neighborhood patterns. It should begin by creating a downtown.

Typical suburbia spreads us out one-story high over vast tracts of land. Good for auto dealers, gas station owners, backhoe operators, pizza-delivery companies, and churches, this type of development fails miserably to create public places that invite accidental encounters among local residents.

As a largely suburban phenomenon, Marysville, like Lynnwood, relies on zoning to keep us apart. Therefore, we must use a car for the simplest of tasks, whether to fetch a loaf of bread, mail a postcard, or visit a rare public park. Those who presume to govern us, concentrate the poor in barracks-like apartment complexes so as not to disturb the well-heeled people of the hill.

It’s no secret that sprawl is expensive and imposes severe financial stress on municipal budgets. Every new house built on the landscape costs more dollars to serve than it contributes in revenues. Those costs include school facilities, sewer, water, parks, and fire protection. But these costs aren’t borne by the new homeowner. Rather, they are included in the city’s and school district’s general funds, in which case every property owner must pay unnecessarily high taxes; or residents must suffer mediocre services. In Marysville, we have both.

The answer to sprawl is not more asphalt, despoiled creeks, and another freeway lane. Nor can we ever hope to achieve that elusive state of community by building more housing tracts, which further divide us, increase our reliance on the automobile, and drain city coffers.

Our challenge is to live closer to one another without erecting ugly, dysfunctional buildings. We must simultaneously achieve proximity and, I dare say, beauty.

We’re not very good at this; we haven’t had much practice. Nor do we have readily available examples of how to live differently. Marysville is like Arlington, Lynnwood, Monroe, and countless other suburban towns and cities across the U.S. that feature scattered schools, proliferating strip malls, cinema complexes, and a dominant culture of white, middle-class families.

The local developers haven’t figured it out, either. They act as if we have an infinite supply of cheap land upon which to build acres of single-family houses designed by third-graders.

I have not always felt this way. As a member of the post-war baby boom, I know only the life of suburbia. I was raised in the suburbs and as an adult succumbed to the American Dream—I had to have my own house, my own yard, preferably on a quiet cul-de-sac with just a few neighbors of my own kind.

Now I am both privileged and deluded. I know that only a small percentage of the world’s population can live as I do. Yet, the accomplishment of the American Dream suppresses diversity, spontaneity, and that sense of the public so crucial to meaningful democracy and authentic community.

A viable downtown acts as a magnetic center, drawing people closer together to live, work, and play. Most important, a viable downtown includes prominent public spaces so that residents and visitors alike can gather to talk and share ideas at all hours of the day.

 

Dave Aldrich

Marysville

 

An old unpublished letter to the Herald (1985)

Editorial Page Editor

The Herald

Dear Editor:

 

I have always envied the many who are “apolitical”: those who manage to get through each and every day without either a concern for, or indeed, a knowledge of the least thing political. Their lives cannot be “bothered” by talk of candidates, issues, or elections; of whether we should be worried about the rising national debt; or should trouble ourselves with thoughts of “Star Wars.”

Unfortunately, I am one of the accursed who cannot avoid reading the newspapers, or the magazines, or listening to television news broadcasts. And after I have read or listened I can’t help reacting: I am a victim of a peculiar chemistry between the world as it apparently is and my self as it was somehow created.

But to read and listen today is to invite an awful melancholy, for I feel completely helpless (most of the time) to effect any change in this world I find so disagreeable. I perceive this world as a juggernaut, moving inexorably toward its ultimate destruction at the hands of its own citizenry with no visible means to stop its progress.

In this most recent presidential campaign, Mr. Reagan chided the “prophets of doom and gloom” for not heeding the call of an America that was once again reclaiming its traditions of patriotism, strength, and God. All right, I am guilty. I am guilty of believing that the greatness of this country, or any other country, is determined by the wellbeing of its people and not by the quantity of its armaments.

Yet, what has Mr. Reagan proposed to counteract those prophets of “doom and gloom”? Quite simply, he has embarked on a most draconian enterprise of domestic spending cuts, which, if successful, will do more to undermine the strength of this nation than the abandonment of any of Mr. Weinberger’s weapons systems. We will be witnessing no less than the destruction of the democratic (and, yes, liberal) ideals which have so long formed an integral part of this nation’s social and political fabric. In the wake of this destruction we will see the emergence of a bold aristocracy, no longer restrained by notions of civil liberties or egalitarianism, that will unflinchingly impose its will on the swelling ranks of the disenfranchised.

Let us consider some specifics. Mr. Reagan, who readily admits to a disinclination to most things intellectual, has just proposed that funding of loans for college students be reduced by 27%. Concurrently, our newly elected governor, despite sympathetic appearances, recently told a group of frustrated college students that this state’s Basic Education Act encompasses only K—12, and that there would be little money available for student assistance. If the better jobs in our society require ever-increasing intellectual skills, skills that are presently taught only at the college level, then ultimately only those who are already wealthy, it would seem, will go on to possess the better jobs, and the inequality will not only be perpetuated but exacerbated. College will become strictly elitist. The growing numbers of students who will be unable to afford a college education will be forced to seek employment in lesser-paying positions, if there are any.

Increasingly, those better-paying jobs will be in the defense sector of the economy, where engineering and computing skills are much desired. Already, over half of our engineers and computer scientists are engaged in defense-related industries, building weapons and weapons systems that we desperately hope will never be used. It requires no feat of logical reasoning to conclude that to continue to manufacture “goods” that are not consumed leaves an ever-widening gap in the whole business cycle: bombs do not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or educate the young. Moreover, as we add to the weapons arsenal we also increase the supply of those who are hungry, homeless, and ignorant.

Where will people live under the aristocracy? To fund the increase in military spending, this nation has incurred an astronomically high deficit, which, in turn, has kept interest rates inordinately high. So high, that fewer and fewer of us can afford the mortgages to acquire a home. Consequently, fewer and fewer homes are built, and the ones that are built are so expensive that only a tiny fraction of the population can purchase them. Again, it is not difficult to draw the conclusions that a greater number of people will be forced to live in inadequate housing or no housing at all; and that jobs in the home construction sector of the economy will grow increasingly rare, which will have a disproportionate affect on our state’s economy and on those thousands who will lose their jobs. Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan will have dramatically curtailed social assistance thereby reducing the total of public housing units in the country. I foresee more and more people having to exist “on the streets”, where they will be susceptible to enticement of drugs and alcohol, and where they will be at the mercy of what charity is available.

Mr. Reagan, on his way to establishing the aristocracy, has said that government should not be in the business of charity. Recently, however, as part of his budget proposal, he has advocated a decrease in the amount of charitable contributions that can be deducted from personal income taxes. In other words, if Mr. Reagan gets his way, all of us will be less inclined to give money to United Way, or the Red Cross, or the Millionaire’s Club, which are just a few of the many agencies that are helping the poor. If contributions subside, then these agencies will not survive, and the poor will be in an even worse predicament.

What underlies this ultimate establishment of the aristocracy, and what initially makes it possible, is everything which is bound up with the question, “What about the Russians?” We are told by many in and out of the current administration that the existence of the Russians justifies, in effect, poverty, homelessness, and ignorance. The Russians are perceived as a flood-like horde that would completely inundate the “free world” were it not for the dikes of our nuclear defense systems. And the more menacing the Russians can be made to appear, the greater the need for larger and more numerous nuclear weapons. At this moment in our history, of course, the Russians are viewed as possibly the worst people who ever lived on this earth. Collectively they are the “evil empire,” and if we are not careful, they will take God out of our classrooms, rape our women, and force us to join long lines for our daily bread.

But suppose the Soviet Union’s designs on our lives are not quite that extravagant. Suppose its people are as afraid of us as we are of them. Suppose that their history is replete with invasion after invasion (which is true) and that their primary objective is to preserve the sovereignty of their nation. Suppose further, that such a history goes a long way to explain their actions in international relations; that their interventions in eastern Europe and Afghanistan, reprehensible though they may be, are intended to create and maintain buffer zones against potential invaders. Certainly our interventions (e.g., Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Grenada, Chile) are not so readily explained by our stated foreign policy objective of protecting “our vital interests.” And let us suppose that the Soviet Union and the United States, for all of their animosities toward one another, really do have the capacity and the common interests to behave less belligerently toward one another. Maybe, just maybe, it is not in the best interests of each country to arm itself to the teeth in the name of defense. Quite possibly, despite the many significant items which serve to divide us, there do exist broad areas of agreement that could form the basis for an enduring peace based on mutuality of purpose rather than on reciprocated fear of one another. (I don’t think that I am far afield here. Carl Sagan, along with his counterparts in the Soviet Union, has long advocated joint efforts in space exploration as not only ends in themselves, but also as means to achieve harmony between two disparate nations.)

If it were possible to dramatically reduce the defense budget, commensurate with maintaining the peace (and I think that it is possible to do so), then the billions of dollars we are now spending on MX and cruise missiles, Trident submarines, and Star Wars research, could be channeled into the domestic economy for the production of consumable goods. If we are to remain a democracy rather than become an aristocracy, should we not endeavor to educate all men and women at their highest possible levels so that they will be in a better position to act responsibly as informed and enlightened citizens? If we subscribe to notions of liberty and equality should we not be concerned with the enfranchisement of all of our people by ensuring that their rights to adequate housing and employment are protected? If we justifiably fear crime and domestic violence, would we not be more secure in our property and in our selves if we created environments in which the tendency toward criminal behavior were dramatically reduced? (At the moment, more and more money is being spent on the construction of jails and prisons to accommodate the increasing numbers of those who feel compelled to violate the rights of others. Study after study has shown that jails and prisons, although built with the stated intention of at least temporarily withdrawing the criminal from society, are, nevertheless, the fertile ground for the multiplication of criminals. Will more jails and prisons, then, be our answer to criminal behavior?)

I realize that I may be accused of merely reaffirming the traditional liberal agenda, much as the Catholic bishops were in their recent economics pastoral; but what does decency require? Messrs. Weinberger and Reagan ask if we can afford not to arm ourselves to the limits they advocate. For me, I wonder if we can (literally) afford to do so, and still call ourselves a nation whose government is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

David A. Aldrich

Marysville