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Buckley voters approve gas utility sale | Election

Now that Buckley voters have overwhelmingly supported the notion of selling their natural gas utility, city officials can continue the time-consuming process of hammering out final arrangements with Puget Sound Energy.

During last week’s general election, more than 85 percent of the vote went in favor of handing gas operations over to PSE. As of Friday morning, the official count was 657 for the sale with just 111 opposed.

Buckley has owned and operated a natural gas system since 1957 and is one of just three cities in the state to do so, along with neighboring Enumclaw and the Kittitas County community of Ellensburg. For a variety of reasons, the city has desired to get out of the gas business and an informal survey of citizens showed broad-based support. Earlier this year, the city advertised the utility for sale and PSE was the only bidder, offering $5.4 million – slightly more than Buckley had anticipated.

The sale was contingent upon public approval, which came last week in landslide fashion.

Now, the real work begins. Or, to be more precise, kicks into high gear. Anticipating a favorable vote, the city and PSE had done some of the early legwork necessary to complete a purchase-and-sale agreement.

“It’s a complicated process,” City Administrator Dave Schmidt said. Every aspect of the gas system has to be detailed, there’s a franchise agreement to be ironed out and easements have to be granted, for example. Additionally, Puget Sound Energy now has to get a formal blessing from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to take over the gas system. And finally, there’s the issue of current city employees who work solely with the gas system; they could be shifted to fill vacant slots in the city’s employment pool, Schmidt said, or could have the opportunity to be hired by PSE.

All those issues take time to be resolved, Schmidt said, estimating it could be late February or March before city gas customers become Puget Sound Energy gas customers.

When city officials were putting the gas utility on the market, Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson explained that Buckley simply is too small to compete in the natural gas marketplace, unable to strike the deals that result in lower costs. Also, the city was required to follow the same regulations as large systems, she said, and the mandates are simply more than Buckley can bear.

The bottom line, Johnson said, is that city residents and business operators would continue paying more than their fair share for natural gas if the sale had not been authorized.

Early estimates were than gas rates could drop 10 percent for residential customers and 6 percent for business clients when the utility becomes property of PSE. The official voters’ pamphlet declared that PSE’s commercial rates are 6 percent less than Buckley’s, a statement that was contradicted in a letter distributed by the city in October.

PSE’s commercial rates are presently 1.6 percent greater than Buckley’s, but the city plans to use funds from the sale to ease the transition process – effectively dropping commercial rates by 6 percent for a year. If the sale had not been approved, the city planned to increase rates to meet expenses. In the end, the city letter said, “PSE commercial rates will continue to be lower than City commercial rates into the foreseeable future.”

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