Grant PUD fiber program to be discussed Sept. 28

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Grant County PUD chief financial officer Jeff Bishop (front) gives commissioners a look at the budget presentation that will be given to the public.

EPHRATA — Grant County PUD commissioners will discuss the future of the district’s fiber program during the commission’s Sept. 26 morning session. The discussion will begin at 9 a.m. in the conference room at the Hydro Office Building at Wanapum Dam, 14352 Highway 243.

That follows an extensive discussion about fiber and its future during a 2018 budget review at the regular commission Tuesday.

Chief financial officer Jeff Bishop presented the information that will be given to customers at public hearings on the budget scheduled for October. During that presentation commissioner Dale Walker said he thought the commissioners should include money in the budget for the continuing buildout of the fiber system.

The current fiber system reaches about 70 percent of the customer base. One conclusion from a review currently underway was that the PUD doesn’t have enough money to complete the buildout without an additional source of revenue, like an increase or surcharge in electrical rates, or reallocating money from other projects.

Utility district officials conducted extensive customer surveys, asking people about the fiber system and where it should go from here. When respondents were asked not to consider the cost, about 70 percent of the people surveyed supported continuing the buildout to the remaining 30 percent without fiber. But when respondents were asked to consider a surcharge on electric rates to pay for the buildout, support dropped to about 43 percent.

Walker said he thought it was important for the potential expense to be included in the budget. Leaving it out would make it difficult for the project to proceed if that was the route commissioners decided to take, he said. Commissioners should also discuss the project and the options with PUD customers, Walker said – if customers say they don’t like it, that ends the discussion.

Commissioner Tom Flint agreed with Walker, “just because I think we need to have this discussion.” Whether or not commissioners decide to continue with the buildout, or defer it, they need to talk about it, Flint commented.

Commissioner Bob Bernd said he was concerned the district would be spending money for little return. Fewer than 50 percent of the customers with access to fiber currently use it. If fewer than 50 percent of the remaining customers tap into the fiber network, the PUD would be putting a lot of money into a project that didn’t provide much revenue when compared to the expense.

Utility district officials are currently working on what Bernd called “a pretty aggressive plan” to market the existing fiber system. “To me, we should put our effort there.”

Commissioner Larry Schaapman said he was concerned the budget hearings traditionally draw a small percentage of PUD customers, which could lead to a misleading impression of what the majority of customers would support. “I’d have to look back at our customer survey – that was pretty recent,” commented commissioner Terry Brewer. “That was an overwhelming percentage that said they didn’t want to pay the additional rate increase.”

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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