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Commission Meeting 9-14-2021: Grant PUD looks to help customers behind on payments

The COVID-19 pandemic has created difficulties that have led some Grant PUD customers to fall behind on their power bill payments. Customer Service Supervisor, Taffy Courteau outlined for commissioners the department's efforts to reach those retail customers who have outstanding balances on their bill.

"Our goal is to talk with customers and get them on a payment arrangement and also direct them to the helping agencies" said Courteau.

Customers Service personnel have been working with customers throughout the pandemic to utilize the numerous federal, state, and local resources that can help pay utility bills.

There are many viable options available that many local customers behind on their bills have utilized, said Courteau. The challenge the department has faced is trying to help those that won't return phone calls or respond to letters.

Staff is currently focusing on reaching those retail customers that are more than 90 days past due with more than $500 in arrearages. Grant PUD will continue to waive all late payments and any reconnection fees before they anticipate restarting their collection process beginning on Dec. 1.

Courteau said no matter what a customer's outstanding balance is, they will work with them by setting up a payment arrangement plan that can spread the cost over a longer timeframe. She said this has been helpful in easing the worries of customers concerned about how they can get caught up on their Grant PUD bill. It also ensures there is no future disruption of service.

Last year, the Governor issued a proclamation that ensured the preservation of essential services for residents throughout the state. The proclamation did not relieve customers from the eventual obligation to pay for utility services and Grant PUD can help customers find a solution during this difficult time. Customers are encouraged to call Grant PUD 509-766-2505 for assistance.

Hear the discussion beginning at 4:35:38 of the commission audio.

COVID impacts, delays increase Priest Rapids Right Bank project cost by $14.67 million

Construction of a federally mandated project to improve seismic strength of the Yakima County-side embankment of Priest Rapids Dam is planned to begin Oct. 4 with commissioners' unanimous approval Tuesday of a $14.67 million increase to the construction contract.

"Nobody likes to see that $14.67 million increase," Commission President Larry Schaapman said. "No fault to staff. It is what it is. It's unfortunate, but you guys are doing great work. Hopefully we can move forward now and start to get this thing back on track."

The project is behind schedule and over the original expected cost due to some permitting delays and to COVID-related shortages and associated price increases in concrete and other building materials.

Managing Director of Power Production Ty Ehrman said Grant PUD engineering staff have thoroughly reviewed contractor IMCO General Construction's revised bid. They compared the cost increase to what other utilities are experiencing with their projects and asked Grant PUD's outside consultant to compare the revised bid with similar bids on other projects.

Ehrman said IMCO has been creative and transparent in working with Grant PUD to mitigate the higher costs. The revised estimate from IMCO came in at $51.3 million, below Grant PUD's own engineers' revised estimate of $51.8 million by Grant PUD engineers. In the original bid, IMCO came in the lowest at $35.2 million.

The project will build a secondary concrete embankment, anchored to bedrock, behind the existing earthen embankment that could fail in an extremely rare strong earthquake.

"It is unlikely that the District would secure lower pricing from a rebid contract," Ehrman told commissioners. "We feel IMCO's price may be the best price going forward."

Listen to the discussion at 3:00:55- 3:01:34 and 3:27:05-03:31:55 on the commission audio. View the full presentation on pages 1-14 of the presentation materials.

Commissioners also:

-- Heard that Grant PUD is meeting or exceeding half of its 18 Strategic Plan Metrics and has made progress closing the gaps on the remaining half. In the "Maintain a Strong Financial Position" category, five of the six metrics have been met or exceeded. The one lagging metric in this category, "Consolidated Return on Net Assets," is a measure of profitability. Though the utility does not currently meet the metric, it has improved compared to the 2021 budget forecast.

Listen to the discussion at 1:55:30 on the commission audio. View the full presentation on pages 16-33 of the presentation materials.

-- Learned that the 2022 budget process is almost ready for public hearings. Additional budget information requested by commissioners will be ready for them before their next meeting, Sept. 28. Budget hearings will be virtual and are already scheduled for Oct. 12 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. and Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. Login information will be available soon.

Heard that Grant PUD will look to rebid the work needed to install a new domestic and production well at the Carlton Acclimation Facility. There was a need to rebid the project after delays due to COVID-19 caused construction costs to escalate and surpass original estimates received prior to the pandemic.

Fish and Wildlife manager, Tom Dresser said staff continues to review alternative plans to determine the best way to achieve the biological requirements of the facility in the most cost-effective way. The goal is to have the final project solution implemented by next fall.

Dresser also outlined the other major initiatives the group is focusing on including:

  • Ensuring Grant PUD's hatchery management and oversite achieve the utility's stewardship requirements and goals.
  • Utilizing additional on-call and seasonal staff to help with fish counting efforts this season.
  • Work to reduce the impact Caspian terns, an avian predator, has on the juvenile steelhead migration through the Priest Rapids Project.
  • Developing joint operating protocols for implementation of the Hanford Reach Fall Chinook Projection Agreement.

See the full presentation on pages 34-47 of presentation materials and hear the discussion beginning at 2:15:00 of the commission audio.

Heard from Manager of Cultural Resources, Brett Lenz that the Kittitas County Prosecutor recently brought a case of criminal trespassing and disturbing an archaeological site against an individual for their actions near Beverly Bridge in 2018.

Lenz said although the department's responsibility is to ensure there is no looting of culturally sensitive artifacts, the vast majority of their interactions with people are positive and information oriented. Staff are focused on helping people understand the history of the area and making sure culturally sensitive areas are not disturbed.

Lenz also updated the commission on other key initiatives including:

  • An overview of the Wanapum Safety Monitors efforts during the Priest Rapids Right Embankment Improvement Project.
  • Details of the near completion of the 2021 archaeological monitoring program.
  • Information regarding the historical significance of potential excavation sites.

See the full presentation on pages 48-59 of presentation materials and hear the discussion beginning at 4:11:33 of the commission audio.

-- Unanimously approved a proclamation regarding in-person participation for commissioners during Grant PUD Commission Meetings. Commissioner developed the proclamation which states that they find it necessary and advantageous to conduct their meetings with all commissioners present in the same room. When doing so, the commissioners will ensure they are meeting the safety guidelines established by national, state, and local health authorities.

Commissioner Larry Schaapman said it was in the best interest for the efficiency and the benefit of the commission to be meeting in person. Staff may still participate remotely.

See the full proclamation on pages 9-10 of the commission packet.

-- Unanimously approved a resolution adopting a revised salary plan and compensation policy for non-bargaining unit employees replacing the existing plan which was adopted in 2018. The policy does not increase salaries but sets parameters for a range of wage increases.

See the details of the resolution on pages 11-25 of the commission packet.

-- Unanimously approved the execution of a contract with the Public Works Board Broadband Program. In the fall of 2020 Grant PUD was awarded a grant and loan for the construction expansion work of its fiber-optic network in Area 15, north of Moses Lake. The contract outlines the terms and conditions for receiving the funding.

See the full details on pages 26-77 of the commission packet.

-- Unanimously approved a change order of an existing contract with IMCO General Construction for increased cost due to delayed work on the Priest Rapids Right Embankment Improvement Project District. The contract was originally executed to construct a replacement dam for the far right (West) embankment at Priest Rapids Dam. Due to permitting delays that affected Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval to start. Construction is anticipated to begin next month.

See the full details on pages 232-240 of the commission packet.