News

City will retain its gas utility

By Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

It appears the latest debate about Enumclaw's natural gas utility - to keep it or to sell - has died a natural death.

Councilman Jeff Coats, who chaired an ad hoc committee charged with considering the fate of the utility, will soon recommend discussions be halted and the committee disbanded. That recommendation is expected to come at the next regularly-scheduled meeting of the City Council, slated for July 10.

Enumclaw is one of only three cities in Washington to own and operate its own natural gas utility. One of the others is found just across the White River in Buckley, and Ellensburg is the third. Every few years, it seems, there's some debate about selling the utility, usually following a major rate hike.

Enumclaw natural gas customers have lived through two serious rate increases recently. Rates shot up 68 percent in 2001 and were bumped another 53 percent last fall.

The latest discussion evolved from a debate over rates and how to best serve the citizens of Enumclaw. Conversation within the City Council's Public Works Committee eventually turned to potentially selling the utility, causing committee members Jeff Beckwith and Jim Hogan to immediately excuse themselves from the debate; both are employed by Puget Sound Energy, the most likely candidate to purchase the city operation if it went on the market, putting each councilman in a potential conflict-of-interest position.

Instead, the ad hoc committee was formed, with Coats being joined by Liz Reynolds and Mike Ennis.

That group eventually split, with Coats and Reynolds agreeing to pursue the idea of selling the natural gas utility and Ennis objecting.

Even one objection is enough to kill the idea.

As City Attorney Mike Reynolds explained during the council's June 26 meeting, a city utility can only be sold with the approval of the voting public. And such an issue can only be placed on the ballot if approved by a “super majority” of the council. With Enumclaw's seven-member council, four represents a majority and it takes five votes to achieve a super-majority. With two members abstaining, it would have taken a unanimous vote of the remaining five to get a proposal on the ballot.

Ultimately, members of the ad hoc committee figured that wasn't going to happen.

The last time the city looked at getting rid of the natural gas utility was 2003, when a pair of suitors made offers. Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas offered between $2.5 million and $3.5 million for the natural gas distribution system, but the city rejected each bid, having already estimated it was worth much more.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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