Candidates for South Tahoe Public Utility District board debate issues at forum
All six of the candidates running for the South Tahoe Public Utility District Board of Directors rank asset maintenance as a top priority. The urgency of the issue is a different matter.
The topic was just one addressed by the candidates Wednesday night during a forum hosted by STPUD. The six are running for three seats on the five-member board.
From rates to climate change to affordable housing, audience members posed a variety of questions during the nearly 90-minute event.
Assets & rates
The utility district is responsible for a vast array of assets, including over 14,000 residential water connections and 330 miles of sewer lines. Proper maintenance of that infrastructure has been a longtime rallying cry for incumbent Jim Jones, who echoed that point Wednesday.
Jones, who likes to point out that he is usually the lone “no” vote when it comes to the annual budget, said the district’s choice to keep rates as low as possible has left it with a shortage of funds to replace its aging infrastructure. He pointed to the collapse of a section of Tahoe Keys Boulevard in 2017 as an example of what happens when maintenance is differed.
Inadequate rate increases have created a situation where future increases will have to be substantial, likely double digits, Jones said.
Lou Pierini, who served on the board from rom 1989-1993, agreed that infrastructure is a critical matter. However, he said any rate increases need to be restricted for specific capital projects in order to prevent the dollars from going toward other priorities come budget season.
Alternative revenue sources, such as the district’s current leasing of land to Verizon Wireless for wireless infrastructure, need to be pursued before simply adopting rate increases, Pierini added. Any increases should be gradual over time.
Incumbent Duane Wallace agreed with some of the statements made by Jones and Pierini, particularly the importance of asset management and the suggestion of restricting revenue from rate increases for specific projects.
However, Wallace took issue with Jones’ assessment of the district’s infrastructure, saying that Jones wants people to believe “the sky is falling.”
The reality, Wallace said, is the district has taken a responsible approach to addressing its aging infrastructure, while remaining fiscally responsible and conscious of ratepayers.
Asked how much an increase would be reasonable for ratepayers, Wallace said he first would need to see the results of a study assessing the current state of the district’s infrastructure.
Another factor, he added, is the amount of work STPUD staff can reasonably accomplish in a given year.
Candidate Nick Exline pointed to his experience in the private sector, where projects must have a return on investment. That quality is especially important as the district looks to alternative sources of revenue — ratepayers, Exline said, cannot afford to keep paying rate increases.
Being a representative for the ratepayers is what being a board member is all about, said incumbent Chris Cefalu.
Cefalu echoed Wallace’s comments regarding Jones’ assessment of the district’s infrastructure, saying the “sky is not falling.” He said the district has an asset optimization program that allows flexibility in district spending.
The district will likely never be able to bring rates down, Cefalu added, pointing to mandates handed down by the state as one factor influencing district spending.
Former Director Eric Schafer said he helped guide the district’s policy of small, gradual rate increases, rather than significant year-to-year increases to pay for expenditures as they arise.
Schafer, a self-described “numbers geek,” took issue with the insinuation of fiscal mismanagement at the district.
He also was the first candidate to mention the current study of the district’s assets, adding that he needs to see that report before determining what a reasonable rate increase would look like.
Jones got in the final shot of the evening, saying he has heard his fellow board members talk about asset management more in the recent weeks than they have in years.
Candidates were asked how, if elected, they would work to address climate change — a question that led some to focus on the magnitude of the situation.
“Climate change to me is a global effort and we’re a very small dot on that giant planet,” Cefalu said.
However, when the district has opportunities to make improvements that benefit the environment, while also remaining financially feasible, it should do so, and it does, Cefalu added.
While he said he is always willing to listen to ideas, Cefalu repeated his point that many investments in “green” energy do not pencil out financially.
Schafer also said it was difficult to imagine how such a small district could have a sizeable impact on a global problem. What the district can do, however, is always be cognizant of its impact on the environment. The district is among one of the best when it comes to that awareness, he added.
Climate change has been a primary issue raised by Exline, who as a volunteer helped secure 100 percent renewable energy commitments from the city of South Lake Tahoe and Lake Tahoe Unified School District.
He rebutted the argument that renewable energy sources don’t carry a return on investment, saying previous analyses conducted by the district are not applicable today.
The district must begin transitioning to renewable energy, he added.
Jones said there is no denying that climate change is happening. While the impact on the district’s source of water is decades away, more immediate impacts will be felt on the part of the ski industry, Jones said.
Climate change is a major issue, Pierini said. Although it is bigger than the district, STPUD can do small things to lead by example. He pointed to his purchase of a Prius many years ago as an example of making small changes that can influence the behavior of others.
One of the most urgent impacts posed by climate change is fire, and the district is making meaningful improvements to fire suppression systems, Wallace said. More work remains on that front.
On the topic of what can the district do to support more affordable housing, Wallace said the district is already leading the way. He pointed to decisions to cut the sewer connection fee — one of many variables that add to the overall cost of development — by 25 percent and then 25 percent again, as a primary example of the district’s leadership on the issue.
Picking up a point first mentioned by Pierini, Wallace also said the “Loop Road” project would eliminate a large pool of current affordable housing, while also adding substantial costs to the district by requiring it to relocate infrastructure.
Exline said STPUD is limited in what it can do on the affordable housing issues. However, it can lead the conversation and bring other agencies to the table, he said.
To that point, Cefalu said the district is very much already leading the way. He echoed many of the points made by Wallace regarding STPUD’s work to make development more affordable.
Rather than throw untested “solutions” out, Schafer said stakeholders should approach developers and ask about the major roadblocks keeping them from taking on affordable housing projects. He also said STPUD has a somewhat limited role regarding the issue, and much of the burden falls on the shoulders of other agencies.
Jones reminded the audience that STPUD’s primary function it to provide water and sewer. He said he voted against the cuts to the sewer reduction fees because it reduced much needed revenue that should be going toward aging infrastructure.