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Friday, June 22, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 p.m.

Guest columnist
Seattle City Light rate plan provides predictability, accountability

By Stan Price and Eugene Wasserman
Special to The Times

FOR those who like the idea of accountable, non-politicized management of our public utilities, we have some good news. For decades, Seattle City Light's rate path has looked like the readout on a seismograph. Now, the Seattle City Council is considering a six-year strategic plan to usher in a new era focused on rate predictability and accountability. The utility would move forward with a clear set of goals over the next six years.

It's easy for elected officials to defer rate increases as elections approach — but the needs driving this rate increase request will not go away. They will roll forward into bigger rate increases later. That's what we have seen in City Light's history. We can do better, and the proposed strategic plan gives us that opportunity.

Long-term planning for this billion-dollar organization — the largest department in Seattle city government and the 10th-largest public utility in the nation — seems like a no-brainer. But it has been remarkably difficult to accomplish. The utility has never adopted a multiyear strategic plan in its entire 100-plus-year history.

Now, with the support of Mayor Mike McGinn, the utility's leaders and the engagement of a nine-member citizen City Light Review Panel, we can bring a forward-thinking approach to management and oversight of City Light that will allow the utility — and its customers — to plan ahead. The utility will be held accountable for specific service improvements and efficiencies.

The average rate increase is estimated at 4.7 percent each year, which translates to an annual increase of about $34 for a typical single-family home customer.

The plan will be examined and updated every two years to adjust for changes in the operating environment to keep the pressure on. We want to see the utility deliver on promised efficiencies in its operations.

The six-year strategic plan, currently before the City Council, is based on four key objectives: improving customer experience and rate predictability; increasing workforce performance and safety; enhancing organizational performance; and continuing conservation and environmental stewardship.

We will still hold bragging rights for having the first carbon-neutral electric utility in the country. And the utility can get down to the business of solving multiple-year challenges with the security of the mayor and City Council's commitment to a plan.

The strategic plan is the result of two years of work, two rounds of extensive public outreach, and intense discussions between the city's leadership, the citizen review panel and the utility. Rate increases won't be avoided, but the path forward will be predictable and will result in greater efficiencies and needed operating improvements at City Light.

The review panel we co-chair will monitor City Light's progress in meeting the goals of the strategic plan. In addition to tracking efficiency, our next phase of effort targets rate design: making sure that the rate structure equitably shares costs between customer classes — from residents to large businesses. We want utility rates to encourage efficient use of energy.

Let's treat City Light like the major business operation it is. If we manage this utility with a long-term perspective focused on customers, employees, efficiencies and the environment, we can benefit from low-cost, carbon-neutral public power for another 100 years.

Stan Price, left, and Eugene Wasserman co-chair the Seattle City Light Review Panel. Price is executive director of the nonprofit Northwest Energy Efficiency Council. Wasserman is president of the North Seattle Industrial Association.

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