In a move to help customers facing financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chelan County PUD commissioners on April 13 unanimously voted to delay for six months a previously adopted rate increase that was scheduled to go into effect on June 1.
The action at the meeting of PUD commissioners means residential electric, water and wastewater rates will stay the same until Dec. 1, 2020, while a wholesale fiber rate increase also is postponed for six months.
The Washington State-based PUD also extended no shutoffs of utility service and waiving late fees through the end of July 2020.
Chelan staff members have reported that a large number of individuals and small businesses are suffering economic harm as a result of COVID-19. State and federal aid is on the way, but response may take time due to high demand, said Andrew Grassell, energy development and conservation manager.
The PUD’s policy of no cutoffs or late fees should help people who are waiting for the federal assistance to arrive.
Meanwhile, Chelan said that customers facing financial setbacks are encouraged to call the PUD to make payment arrangements.
Chelan PUD Helping Hand funds from customer donations also can help individuals, noted John Stoll, Customer Utilities managing director.
The PUD is considering whether to expand assistance for individuals. The Helping Hand account for residential customers is well-funded, but more funds may be needed, or the PUD may need to set up an alternative account using District funds. The PUD also is considering whether to initiate a financial assistance program for commercial businesses.
“We have a long road ahead of us and talking about what we can do as a utility in Chelan County to work with customer-owners in the best way we can,” said Commissioner Randy Smith.
Board members agreed that potential actions should focus on making an impactful and meaningful difference to community members in need while ensuring fair access across the county. New programs must be within the PUD’s legal authority, maintain a commitment to the adopted financial metrics and be implemented at a time that makes a difference, they said.
Commissioners encouraged further exploration of a program to support small business impacted by COVID-19 and increasing the Helping Hand program scope, or developing a new program to help more individuals facing hardships from COVID-19.
In a related report, commissioners heard that power use in the county has declined up to 12 percent since early March when the governor put the “stay home/stay healthy” order in place.
Financial markets have stabilized
In other business, commissioners heard that financial markets have stabilized, offering the opportunity to secure savings on financing costs by issuing low-cost bonds as authorized by commissioners on March 30.
Heather Irelan, lead treasury analyst, reported that the PUD’s strong finances earned the new issue AA+ ratings from both S&P and Fitch.
Snohomish County PUD
Another Washington State-based PUD, Snohomish County PUD, recently detailed how it was able to respond quickly to the pandemic.
John Haarlow, CEO and general manager of the PUD, provided these details in an interview with Public Power Daily.