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July 28, 2009 at 10:07 AM

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Seattle City Light chief gives $40k bonus to needy ratepayers

Posted by Kate Riley

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels took a lot of heat for giving a $40,000 bonus to the head of the city's electric utility during a recession that has pinched the city's budget severely.

But Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco quietly gave the full $40,000 to Project Share, the utility's last-resort fund for helping low-income people pay their electric bill. Carrasco gave the check to the Customer Care Department July 16, Director Kelly Enright confirmed.

That's an impressive move, considering that the bonus, although contractually required, could certainly have become a bone of contention as City Light negotiated the recession and a $70 milllion drop in wholesale revenues from its hydropower operations.

The cat apparently was let out of the bag at an employee meeting Friday when employees were challenging Carrasco on his bonus. A senior manager then told the employees what happened to the bonus, a City Light spokeswoman confirmed. Apparently, several wrote checks to Project Share themselves.

This morning Carrasco confirmed the payment, saying he and his wife decided to contribute the full bonus amount because of the challenges facing the utility and its customers.

"These are tough times," Carrasco said. "We felt the right thing to do was to give the full amount to Project Share." He said they did not intend for the contribution to be publicized.

However: "I don't want the issue of this incentive to affect the utility's needs," he said. "The needs of the utility should be decided on its merits and not on something that is a distraction."

Because of City Light's drop in revenues from its hydropower operations, the utility has implemented deep cost-containment measures. This calendar year, the utility has cut its operations and maintenance budget by $21 million or 11 percent and its capital budget by $43 million, or 20 percent.

When the bonus hit the news, The Times editorial board criticized Nickels decision July 9:

Nickels last month gave Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco his maximum allowable bonus — during severe downturns in the economy, city coffer revenues and the fortunes of most of his constituents. That's not to say Carrasco isn't worth the $224,000 he will make this year. He has done an impressive job navigating City Light out of the mess of debt and high rates of a few years ago. Last year, the council unanimously voted to reconfirm him — with the support of this page.

Carrasco has gone without a bonus in each of the past two years, and Nickels apparently decided to make it up to him — big time at the worst time.

Project Share is among a group of programs to help people who can't pay their energy bills. It is intended primarily for the elderly, disabled, and households with young children with incomes below 70% of the state median but can be used to assist moderateâ€'income customers who are experiencing a temporary crisis and are unable to maintain their electric payments or face disconnection.

As the recession has deepened, City Light ratepayers have cut back their contributions to Project Share, but the demand has increased, a spokeswoman said.

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