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Power open house draws crowd, criticism

Tulelake farmer John Staunton gives a statement to court reporter Debbie Dugan during the Public Utility Commission meeting Tuesday night at the Klamath County Fairgrounds.

 Irrigators crowded into a building at the Klamath County Fairgrounds Tuesday evening to talk to state and power company officials about a possible tenfold increase in power rates.

About 150 people attended the meeting, including many who didn't like the format of the open house held by staff of the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

"I don't know how it could be any worse," said Don Rajnus, a third-generation farmer whose homestead is near Malin.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission called the meeting to discuss proposed changes in rates charged by Pacific Power. The company has filed for a 12.5 percent increase across the board that, because of cost changes, would show up as a 6.7 percent increase on customers' bills.

A contract Pacific Power holds with Klamath Reclamation Project irrigators that keeps power rates at about a half-cent per kilowatt hour is set to expire in April 2006. With the end of the contract, Pacific Power officials have said rates will go up tenfold, up to the level other irrigators around Oregon are paying.

Most who came Tuesday night wanted to talk about the irrigation contract, and were discouraged by the format.

Rajnus said the Oregon Public Utility Commission should have run the meeting more like a public forum, where there would be one speaker at a time putting the comments into a microphone and onto the public record.

PUC spokesman Bob Valdez said the commission has used the open house format for the past three years because some people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.

Inside the fairgrounds' blue exhibit building was a row of tables with booths set up by the PUC, the Klamath Water Users Association's power committee and Pacific Power.

In one corner, a duo of court reporters took down people's comments for the record. Forty-three people registered comments.

In another corner, a pair of Klamath County Sheriff deputies stood at watch, part of the precautions organizers took in case discussions became heated. The deputies' squad cars flanked the entrance and a private security guard also walked through the crowd.

"It was a farce," said John Knoll, who farms 600 acres off of Reeder Road. "You think there would be questions and answers from both sides."

He said he came to hear Pacific Power's story for not keeping the contract, and he wanted them to tell it to the group. For about an hour, Knoll sat in a chair near the middle of the room, talking to other irrigators who passed by.

Because of the criticism of the format, the three members of the PUC might come to Klamath Falls to hold a hearing, Valdez said. He'll take that suggestion to the commission Thursday.

About halfway through the two-hour open house all but 30 people had left.

Many issues concerning power rate are subject to debate.

Rajnus said the power company shouldn't be allowed the rate increase because it would cause "rate shock" for irrigators.

"It will kill the Basin," said Rajnus.

Along with the four PUC officials at the open house, there was also a Pacific Power contingent, including Don Furman, senior vice president.

During the open house, Furman said many asked him why the company won't renew the contract in place that has been set twice, for 50 years each. It was last renewed in 1956.

"The answer is we have laws in the books that don't let us do contracts like this," he said.

He said the state laws don't let the company set rates that discriminate among customers, and that don't cover the costs of making the energy. The utility is also prohibited from making "special" contracts.

Next week the company will send out sample bills that will give irrigators an idea of how the change in rate will affect their bill, said Jon Coney, company spokesman. The sample bills will show much how much power irrigators have used over the past five years and how much they paid for it, and then how much they would have paid with the increased rate.

Is there any way irrigators could keep the rate they have?

"No," Coney said.

A rate hike would be devastating to irrigators, said Ross Fleming, a project farmer and Klamath Irrigation District director. In working to make irrigation systems more water efficient, farmers have switched to systems that use more power.

He said higher rates would make some of the systems too costly to run.

"If they give us the rates they are talking about, there won't be agriculture in the Basin," Fleming said.

Tuesday's open house was one of four the PUC is holding about the power rate change in general. The first two were in Bend and Portland. Those meetings drew about a half dozen people each, Valdez said. Many more showed up in Klamath Falls because of the irrigation rate issue.

Another open house is set for Medford today.






Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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