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OKANOGAN - Budget talks, including the possibility of a 2 percent revenue increase through higher rates, continued to dominate discussion during the Okanogan County Public Utility District’s Dec. 2 board meeting.

The possibility of closing the Omak office to avoid a higher increase also was discussed.

PUD officials said a revenue increase is necessary to cover rising costs of operating the district and fund debt service payments for several infrastructure projects over the next several years. The exact rate increase per class - residential, general service and so on - would be determined through a separate process after the budget is approved.

Staff and board members also discussed raising the cost of power adjustment, as noted on customer bills, to pass through increases in the cost of power incurred to the district. The COPA currently is 0.54 cent per kilowatt-hour.

Don Coppock, director of finance and accounting, said a district resolution requires the COPA be adjusted for changes in power costs – at one point since its 2010 implementation, it has gone down to follow a cost decrease.

The recommendation was to raise the COPA to 0.6 cent per kWh. That would mean about 60 cents more for every 1,000 kWh used. The average home uses 1,200-1,500 kWh per month.

Closing the Omak office and not hiring a currently open customer service representative position would save the district about $84,000 annually. The office is a drive-through-only location that takes payments.

Since the Okanogan office is nearby, and no other branches have nearby offices, district staff recommended the Omak office’s closure to avoid additional rate increases. The current customer service staff member at Omak would still work for the district, but at an open location.

Commissioner Scott Vejraska said he couldn’t support fully closing the Omak office, and asked about other scheduling possibilities, whether scaling back hours or trading off with another lower-traffic office. He said the amount of traffic through Omak’s office was second only to Okanogan’s.

There was also discussion about slowly closing the office, reducing the number of hours or days it is open while customers connect with other payment methods, such as SmartHub online or app-based payment, pay by phone or traveling to the Okanogan office.

Customer Service Supervisor Mindy Morris said there will always be a drop box at the Omak location for payments, and if the office is closed, there would be a daily pick-up scheduled. Keeping the office open now is a challenge without another customer service representative, and that it sometimes has to close when more than 2 representatives are sick.

Earlier budgeting for 2020 called for a 4 percent revenue increase, but staff made cuts and delayed projects to reduce the increase to 3 percent, and then 2 percent. The budget hearing, including discussion on closing the Omak office, will continue at least once more until the next board meeting on Dec. 16.

In other business, the board:

-Heard from Jennifer Harper of Energy Northwest about partnerships to bring electric vehicle charging stations to areas around Washington. Energy Northwest is interested in installing up to four stations in Okanogan County.

-Authorized General Manager Steve Taylor to execute a change order to the Max J. Kuney Co. design-build contract for Enloe. The maximum amount is $200,000 for phase 1 services for additional site investigation work.

-Approved a resolution authorizing certain staff members to designate expenditures for potential reimbursement from bonds that may be approved in the future.

-Approved a resolution regarding the rate stabilization fund. The account will be funded to $6 million (already in the account), and staff will develop policies for withdrawing and replenishing the funds.

-Approved a resolution updating general provisions to add in a paragraph regarding the new process for high-density load customers.

-Approved the first reading of a resolution establishing a vehicle replacement reserve account. The resolution would take an existing $135,000 in the rate stabilization fund (above the $6 million target amount) to establish the account, then it would be maintained with $75,000 in monthly deposits from the district to fund vehicle replacements. The proposal will be heard again at the Dec. 16 meeting.

-Approved a resolution revising the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 77. The three-year contract would begin April 1, 2020.

Vejraska, who works for the Nespelem Valley Electric Cooperative, abstained from the vote.

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