PUD commissioners to make decision on fiber

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EPHRATA — Grant County PUD commissioners will discuss, and possibly decide, the next step for the district’s fiber program at the Nov. 14 meeting. The immediate future of the fiber program has been a subject of discussion for commissioners all summer, tied back to the PUD budget.

The fiber network is available to about 70 percent of the PUD’s customers. The remaining 30 percent are mostly in rural parts of the county, more difficult – and more expensive – to reach.

It’s the expense of finishing the network that has prompted all the discussion. After about six months of research, PUD employees have recommended suspending the buildout and concentrating on increasing customer utilization within the existing system.

Utility district employees concluded the only way to pay for the continued buildout would be to add a surcharge, at least 2.5 percent, to existing rates. “The bottom line is, we don’t have the extra funds to dedicate to this (the fiber buildout),” said Dave Churchman of the PUD’s accounting department at the Sept. 26 meeting. The surcharge would be in addition to 2 percent rate increases already planned.

A moratorium on the buildout is included in the proposed PUD budget, but the budget hasn’t been approved yet. During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioner Tom Flint said it’s time the commissioners to decide what they want to do.

“We’ve wrestled with all these options, but we have not come together on any one of them,” Flint said.

General manager Kevin Nordt said PUD officials were hoping for a decision that would set PUD policy, “not just for next year, but for the next number of years.”

Commissioner Bob Bernd said he wanted some information on costs, and some of the options for people who still want to hook into the system. The proposed fiber policy does include options for expansion, including having prospective customers pay the costs. Bernd said he wanted to know what the cost would be in an area where there was already an extensive fiber network.

Another option recommended by PUD employees is partnering with other businesses or organizations to expand the capability for reliable (and fast) service. “We’re in some discussions now,” Nordt said, “pursing some partnering with some entities.” Those discussions are in the early stages, he said, so right now few details are available.

Utility district employees are also looking at pursuing grants to help pay for the buildout, Nordt said. “We have not actively looked for grants for five years or so,” he said, so employees are still trying to determine what’s out there. “Increasing our focus in that area may be worth our while.”

“For me, it still comes back to the fairness issue,” said commissioner Larry Schaapman. All PUD customers helped pay for the buildout to date, he said, while customers who came in later haven’t made the same kind of economic commitment. Customers who still don’t have fiber will be asking why they don’t, he said. “We’re going to have to answer that question.”

Bernd said the fairness question works both ways, since current PUD customers helped pay to get electricity to remote – and more expensive to reach – parts of the county.

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

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