Urban Politics #70: City Light Rate Increase


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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City Light Rate Increase

Seattle City Light has proposed overall electric rates to increase by an average of 3.1% in each of the next three years. For more than half of Seattle’s residential customers, bills would increase less than a dollar per month in 2000. For 37% of the users it would be twenty-five cents a month and the rate climbs steeply for those who consume the most electricity. Qualified low-income customers would continue to receive low-income rates that are half of the regular residential rates.

City Light has not had a rate increase since 1994 and is proposing one now to its $1.2 billion distribution system. The increase is due in part to making major improvements to the system. One of the largest is a $27 million upgrade of our Boundary Dam generation plant which supplies almost half of Seattle’s electricity.

An even larger expenditure is a $50 million capacity and reliability upgrade to our downtown network system. The existing Downtown Network is quickly running out of capacity to serve known future loads. It currently carries 7 times the electrical load than the rest of the system.

However, the cost of this project will not be born by all ratepayers but primarily by the large downtown electrical consumers, excluding downtown residential and small general service customers. City Light has only three network systems: Downtown, Pike-Pine, and the University District. The improvements are only being made downtown because that is the only one that has seen additional electrical demand.

City Light is also proposing to create a separate rate for its suburban customers. The majority of suburban residents will be seeing their rates increase by more than $2 a month in 2000. This new rate recognizes the customer-owner status of Seattle citizens over City Light and thus gives them priority to the power output from City-owned low-cost generation resources.

Meeting the demand from suburban areas forces City Light to acquire additional higher-cost resources. For instance, although City Light currently generates about two-thirds of its power, the rest must be purchased. Most of it is purchased on the open market and with national electric deregulation taking place we can expect those prices to increase by 40% in the next few years. And the transmission rates for the electric power we receive from the Bonneville Power Administration are expected to rise by 25% next year.

The final major change being made is to finance the City’s street light infrastructure through electricity rates instead of general tax revenues. The City currently pays City Light about $5 million per year for installing, maintaining and providing electricity to about 74,000 streetlights on public thoroughfares in the City. These were traditionally owned by City Light and the Transportation Dept owned another 19,000.

The City decided to consolidate responsibility for all streetlights under City Light and now that department has said it will also pick up the funding for them as well. This change would result in about a 60 cents a month increase for the typical Seattle resident. The Mayor has proposed that the money saved from the general fund that is no longer used for street lights be used to provide additional funds for repairing city streets.

Although road repairs are needed, I propose using the general fund savings instead for more pedestrian scale lighting. Twenty-five of thirty-eight neighborhood plans recommended additional pedestrian lighting as part of major streetscape improvements and proposed key pedestrian streets.

These requests totaled roughly 50 miles of lighting at a cost of about $20 million. I believe this investment could reduce both crime and traffic congestion. More pedestrian scale lighting means more people seeing one another on the street. It means walking to the local store rather than driving. It means contributing to the social fabric of our neighborhoods.

Even with the proposed rate increase Seattle’s electric rates will remain the lowest of the 25 largest municipalities in the nation. And even within the Northwest, City Light’s average cost per megawatt hour will be $23.49 as compared to the projected market rate of $34. Overall, it appears that the proposed rate increase is one that has been deferred long enough and to do so any longer might degrade the quality of our service.

Kiosk Task Force Report

Council Member Richard Conlin and I formed the Kiosk Task Force last September. There were 18 members on the taskforce with representatives from both community and neighborhood business groups, as well as from the music industry that has been hardest hit by the poster ban. They met for 6 months and issued their report. Its major points are outline below.

When Conlin and I campaigned two years ago a number of citizens criticized the City’s 1994 “poster ban”, which made it illegal to post notices on utility polls. The ordinance was passed in response to concerns for the safety of the utility workers who maintained the poles as well as concerns for the inordinate amount of litter caused by over posting on the poles.

As a citizen activist I had originally fought to amend the poster ban legislation. I believed that by working with utility workers and shop owners an arrangement could be reached to allow public postering in a safe and an organized manner. I promised to continue that effort on the City Council. Richard Conlin had taken a similar stance.

The Task Force’s mission, however, went beyond looking at the poster ban. In fact, after lengthy discussion, the Task Force concluded that the poster ban was not an issue on which it would spend its time. They decided that the poster ban and a community kiosks program exist as two separate issues and should be considered as such by the City Council.

The recommendations of this Task Force to implement a comprehensive community kiosks program should be considered whether or not the ban on postering is repealed. In addition, the Task Force recommends that the Council not consider the availability of community kiosks in its deliberation of the poster ban.

The focus of the Task Force was then to recommend strategies to the City for promoting the use of kiosks throughout the city to help individuals and neighborhoods communicate to the general public.

This broader scope grew out of the recognition that many neighborhoods wished to have community kiosks as they developed plans for their neighborhoods’ growth as part of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan. Of the 37 neighborhood plans currently passing through the City Council’s approval and adoption process, 28 have indicated that they would like kiosks in their communities

The Task Force’s primarily addressed their concerns and in that process came up with the following recommendations.

1) The City should provide 2 design options for those communities that want maximum ease of implementation rather than having to design their own kiosk. The standard kiosk options would include a resilient tackable surface, rules for posting, and be permanent fixtures. A subcommittee of the Task Force is now working with the design firm of David Hewitt & Associates on two prototypes. One would be open to all notices, the other would be limited to more formal posters and notices of community events. Both prototypes would be manufactured by City Light and are expected to be available early next year for touring different neighborhoods.

2) Communities that would like to create kiosks that fit better into their neighborhoods would be granted the resources to build their own kiosks in the equivalent amount of funds that the standard kiosk options cost.

3) Seatran (The City’s Transportation Department) would require the kiosk proponent or another community stakeholder sign a Stewardship Agreement with Seatran before the permitting of the kiosk is granted. Under this option the City still recognizes the importance of funding the Community Kiosk Program by paying for the construction of the kiosk but requires that the Kiosk proponent or another community stakeholder partner with the city to provide for day to day upkeep.

4) Based upon the cost of the Columbia City Kiosk, the Task Force estimated that a single kiosk would cost $250. The CKTF recommended funding sufficient to implement a citywide Community Kiosk program with 250 kiosks built citywide. This program would require a budget of $500,000.

5) Since there will be multiple city departments involved in reviewing Community Kiosk proposals, the Task Force recommended that each department should have a central point person for Kiosk applicants. The Department of Neighborhoods (DON) should prepare a brochure describing the program and each of its elements. Primary contact with DON may be with the neighborhood planning groups that have identified the development of kiosks as a priority. DON should also establish an outreach program for neighborhoods not engaged in neighborhood planning.

Richard Conlin and I are now drafting a resolution that outlines a workplan for accomplishing the above recommendations. I hope to have a draft completed within the next 60 days.

I recognize that this proposed solution does not meet the needs of those who support unlimited postering in the City. I hope to still address that issue. But I also recognize and appreciate the Task Force’s citywide kiosk project for providing many more opportunities for posting public notices. In the long run, I believe it can make a significant contribution toward building stronger communities.

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