LONG BEACH - The Jan. 19 commissioner meeting of the Pacific County Public Utility District, held at the conference room in PUD facility on Sandridge Road, drew a small number of Peninsula citizens concerned about the recent salary hikes for union staff.

Union employees will receive a 4.5 percent increase retroactive to April 2009 and another 4.5 percent increase in April of this year. These increases follow three years of annual 3 percent increases for the same staff.

PUD's total payroll increased 27.2 percent in the five years between 2005 and 2009.

Five members of the public were present for the meeting as well as nearly the same number of PUD employees, in addition to Commission President Diana Thompson, Commissioners Ron Hatfield and Mike Swanson and PUD General Manager Doug Miller.

The meeting ran for more than two hours.

Range of Topics Discussed The meeting included discussion of the rate increase, salary raise, waivers for undergrounding utilities, and telecommunications issues.

Nancy Lloyd, a Peninsula resident for 32 years, was present and read a copy of her letter to the editor that was printed in the Chinook Observer.

Lloyd was under the impression that the salary raises were tied to rate increases; however, as Miller made clear, the salary increases were the result of a negotiation process conducted with the collective bargaining team for union staff and were not directly connected to the recent rate increase.

The October 2009 rate increase of 4 percent was due to a rate increase at the Bonneville Power Administration.

"We have not had a rate increase since October of 2000, despite rising gas prices and other expenses," Miller reiterated at the meeting.

"Unfortunately BPA raised our rates 7.56 percent, and since we purchase 50 percent of our wholesale power from them, that translates as a 4 percent rate increase for our customers," he stated.

Miller indicated that the conjunction of the salary increase at the same time as the utility rate increase, which took place in October, was simply a matter of unfortunate timing.

Lloyd, speaking for other concerned citizens, admonished the PUD commissioners and staff for living in a bubble and ask them to be compassionate in realizing that others in the county are unemployed or have not had the luxury of any salary increases in many years.

Larkin Stentz spoke after Lloyd and asked PUD employees to consider reversing their salary raise.

"So many people are hurting on the Peninsula," said Stentz, "I ask you to consider those people."

PUD Salaries Competitive According to Miller these salary increases merely keep Pacific County PUD competitive in a tremendously predatory environment in which experienced utility staff are often "stolen" from one area to another.

Miller feels that PUD salaries in Pacific County are, in fact, perhaps lower than in comparable counties.

Pacific County PUD No. 2 currently has 56 full-time employees. The district pays wages and benefits for each of those individuals. PUD's three commissioners also earn a monthly salary as well as health benefits and a per diem for attending meetings or other PUD functions.

"A journeyman lineman makes $35.26 per hour," Miller shares. "The general manager's position level has a range of $8,456 to$11,095 per month."

In 2003, when PUD last provided salary ranges rather than exact figures, it eventually was disclosed that Miller made the top number in the range.

The lineman annual wage depends on regular plus overtime hours. A regular salary, according to Miller, is 2,080 hours annually, which would put the lineman's annual salary in the range of $73,341 plus benefits.

PUD's Annual Payroll Trend

PUD's annual total payroll has trended steadily upward and, in some cases, particularly in heavy storm years - overtime adds another hefty sum.

In 2005, total payroll was $2,912,844; with overtime adding another $131,350.

In 2006 payroll was $3,024,015, with an overtime bill of $329,217.

In 2007, payroll totaled $3,424,166, and overtime added another $342,785. (December 2007 was the year of the two hurricane force storms on the Peninsula.)

2008 payroll was $3,533,824 and overtime was $166,110; and last year, 2009, payroll was $3,705,402, while overtime climbed again to $228,803.

"Overtime is due primarily to outages where repairs take place outside of the normal work day and is very dependent on weather," Miller indicates.

"Unfettered Access" and Undergrounding Another issue of concern to citizens attending the meeting was the proposal by PUD commissioners to explore a telecommunication Internet service offering for the area.

Glenn Ripley, an Ocean Park resident and businessman, had concerns that what was being called 'unfettered access' would simply mean that the PUD had another "monopoly on services in our area."

PUD Information Technology Manager Marc Wilson described the concept as simply being a way that PUD could bring better Internet service and perhaps lower prices to an area typically not served by private Internet providers.

Several of the other PUDs in our area provide Internet services as well as power and water.

Ripley indicated in an e-mail that he feels "the barriers preventing public competition with the private sector are essential."

Jason Russell, a local developer attempting to renovate and rehab existing rental properties, was concerned about the length of time it takes to reconnect a property that has not had service for a year or more.

Current PUD policy states that any property without service for over a year must comply with new standards; often this means undergrounding all utilities.

Russell indicated that undergrounding wires is not always feasible. Miller and other PUD staff at the meeting indicated that there is a waiver process for undergrounding if the circumstances warrant it.

Fair hearing When contacted after the meeting, Lloyd indicated that she felt she had received a fair hearing.

"I appreciate the reception and attention I got at the meeting," Lloyd shared by phone. "There was no hint of my being dismissed."

"I just think we need to have better communication," Lloyd said. She indicated that she felt more citizens should be involved in all public agencies - city and county - to understand better how they operate.

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