By Britt Storkson
Governments today are finding it increasingly difficult to raise taxes without major public outcry and threats to their re-election. Not satisfied with cutting spending to stay within what they receive in taxes governments don’t just go away – they go somewhere else to separate taxpayers from their money.
Often that somewhere else is monopoly utilities…Water districts, power companies and the like. There they can raise rates under the guise of funding the rising costs of providing that utility.
Many times the problem with a law is not what is in the law but what isn’t in the law. In the case of monopoly utilities there is no law governing where they spend the money they collect in rates. They don’t have to spend it just to provide the utility. They can spend it wherever they want.
The money you pay for water rates, for example, can go to fund homeless shelters, to certain individuals and even to things that many of us don’t think should get any funding at all such as abortion clinics.
A particularly egregious example of this “end run” around accountability exists with Electric Co-operatives. Electric Co-operatives are state sanctioned monopolies that are your sole power providers in certain areas, again determined by the state. You don’t have any choice who you buy your electric power. You are forced to buy power from whoever the state says you should buy power from even if other power providers are available.
Co-operatives (Co-op’s) are private, non-profit corporations supposedly “owned” by the members or “ratepayers” – those who buy their power from them. The problem is that by statute, the members have no rights whatsoever.
Unlike public agencies Co-op members do not have the right to attend Co-op board meetings or even to know when and where board meetings will be held. Members do not have the right to any information about the Co-op including financial information or even the general managers’ pay and benefits package. Co-op’s are not regulated by the Oregon P.U.C. (Public Utility Commission) and its rates are not subject to P.U.C. review or member comment.
Power rates are not the same for all ratepayers for the same power. Some power customers pay next to nothing for while others pay much higher rates. The net effect is that ratepayers pay higher rates to subsidize those granted “a break” on their rates.
Board of Directors elections are held by the Co-op and the votes are counted by the Co-op. There is no independent verification by the county clerk or anybody else. That means that one does not become a board member unless the board wants them as a member. Here in The Dalles Wasco Electric Co-operative has two board members are currently serving on the board unlawfully in violation of the Wasco Electric bylaws term limits provision.
If co-operative boards do anything unethically – or even illegally there is no legal remedy. Say that a co-operative board gives themselves each $100,000.00 in violation of the bylaws provision that states that the board members shall not be paid. First of all, with the secrecy provisions in place its unlikely anybody outside of the board would know about this. But in the unlikely event that somebody outside of the board did find out about it what are the ratepayers going to do? They can’t do anything. The board members are indemnified by statute (ORS62) and there is no penalty for disregarding the bylaws provisions. Remember the board can spend the money it gets from ratepayers anywhere it wants. It’s just like taxation only a power company instead of a government is used to separate you from your money. A very unaccountable power company instead of a minimally accountable government.
With unaccountability comes new problems. Wasco Electric Co-op’s policy ends up being to sue in order to get private property on which to place their property lines instead of negotiating with the owner. Wasco Electric will also sue anybody who questions anything they do. Not only do ratepayers get abused when they pay their bill they get abused by the Wasco Electric Lawyer.