Seattle City Light's rate-hike proposal deserves close scrutiny
The Seattle Times editorial board takes a look at Seattle City Light's six-year plan.
Seattle Times Editorial
Seattle City LightForums on Strategic Plan
Two public forums will be held on City Light's strategic plan at Seattle City Council chambers, 600 5th Ave., Seattle. The first will be from 3 to 5 p.m., Thursday, June 14, and the next will be from 4 to 6 p.m., Tuesday, June 26.
SEATTLE City Light is proposing a six-year plan that assumes rate increases of 4.7 percent per year, which amounts to nearly 32 percent by the end of 2018. That is a lot to load on the city's employers, and also its residents. City officials should strive to do better than that.
Much of the increase is unavoidable. Nearly half of it is the cost of present and future borrowing, part of it for a substation to serve growth in South Lake Union already under way. The utility also wants to spend $88 million to replace all electromechanical meters with ones that require no meter readers. This can be delayed until the utility decides if it wants to begin time-of-day pricing.
City Light's rate increases will also depend on how willing it is to root out inefficiencies. A recent study by the UMS Group of Parsippany, N.J., said the Seattle utility could save several millions a year with more efficient work practices. Its overtime hours in transmission and distribution are twice what they should be, and its work crews for routine tasks are twice the industry average in size. To replace a wood pole, the utility uses three separate crews.
City Light says that to follow some of UMS's suggestions it will need a more common-sense contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Last time, City Hall's negotiators backed down after workers took advantage of the urgency caused by storm damage to stage a sickout. This time — the contract is up early next year — City Light should have the full backing of the mayor and City Council to insist on work rules that fit 21st-century needs.
A small part of the rate increases would buy "green tags" to comply with Initiative 937, which requires utilities to pay for new renewable energy. City Light's energy is from dams and is renewable already. The law ignores this and forces the utility to subsidize expensive energy for other people, which is unfair to Seattle ratepayers. City Light should join other Washington utilities in their effort to modify the law.
Seattle's economy is underpinned by relatively low-cost power, an advantage the city cannot afford to lose.
This editorial originally said that Seattle City Light has adopted the six-year plan. It has proposed it.