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Two cents worth

On November 6, San Francisco voters will vote on two initiatives that may change the way the city provides public utilities. The Call asked both the supporters and the critics of the measures for a description of their position. The opponents offered no response; their arguments can be found at www.no3billionbill.com. The proponents have provided the following statement:

Public power for San Francisco?

Thanks to the hard work of scores of volunteers and the fact that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors now has a progressive majority, retail consumers in San Francisco and Brisbane have their best chance ever to take control of their energy future.

Two initiatives on the November 6 ballot — San Francisco–Brisbane Measure I and San Francisco Proposition F — would create public utilities that could provide inexpensive, reliable distribution of electricity. San Francisco Propositions B and H would enable the city to issue revenue bonds for renewable-energy projects.

Look at the havoc that the private sector, aided by Gov. Gray Davis, has wreaked on California this year and at what will happen to much of the state after next February, when electricity rate caps will expire, and it’s not hard to see why a poll commissioned a few months ago by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce showed that Measure I, to form a San Francisco–Brisbane Municipal Utility District (SFBMUD), was favored by 70 percent of the respondents.

However, proponents of Measure I and Proposition F, to create a San Francisco Municipal Water and Power Agency (MWAPA), aren’t taking victory for granted. PG&E has hired three high-powered advertising and public-relations firms to orchestrate the opponents’ campaign, and it’s getting millions of dollars in support from the likes of Southwestern Bell Corporation and AT&T.

Even before these initiatives went on the ballot, PG&E spent more than $200,000 to fight them.

And where are all these millions coming from? Us, the ratepayers.

Moreover, the opponents are waging a scare campaign based purely on speculation. The proponents are grounding their arguments in the facts. Let’s review:

The rate caps, mandated in the state’s 1996 energy-deregulation bill, expire when utility companies pay off their debts but no later than next February 28. San Diego Gas and Electric retired its debt early this year and its retail customers saw their rates rocket by as much as 300 percent in just a few months. They’re so angry that a MUD campaign is rapidly gaining steam in San Diego, where most voters are conservative.

The San Diego episode prompted this admonition last July: “If present trends continue, the train wreck is headed our way.” It’s not just the message that’s significant; it’s also the source — Dan Richard, PG&E’s senior vice president of government and regulatory relations.

When rolling blackouts socked much of California early last summer, Los Angeles and Sacramento were unaffected. As public-power cities, they’ve been able to become energy self-sufficient. In fact, the L.A. Department of Water and Power sold surplus power to other California communities.

Sacramento MUD’s success stems partly from a solar-sourcing system that has drawn nationwide praise. There’s more to the story: SMUD went solar to replace energy production lost by the shutdown of its Rancho Seco nuclear-power plant, in response to public pressure.

That underscores another reason for public power. MUDs are governed by citizen-elected boards of directors. And while it’s true that SFBMUD would not have to comply with San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance, all California MUDs must obey state open-meetings and public-records laws.

If Proposition F passes, MWAPA’s board also would be voter-elected and that agency would be subject to the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.

By contrast, local and state sunshine laws don’t affect PG&E; you can’t vote in its board elections unless you own company stock; and its directors meet in private.

Opponents claim also that SFBMUD would use eminent domain to seize and operate myriad utility services — electricity, natural gas, trash pick-up, cable TV, and telecommunications — at a cost of up to $3.36 billion, which would be funded through increased rates and property taxes.

First, they don’t itemize the amount or cite a data source. They just expect voters to take their word for it. Furthermore, PG&E Company’s bankruptcy invalidates any price estimate that the opponents want to make for the electricity and natural-gas infrastructures; those determinations rest with the bankruptcy court.

Even the blatantly pro-PG&E study that the Economic & Technical Analysis Group (ETAG) did for the city in 1997 concluded that shifting power distribution to the public sector would save consumers about 5 percent.

Second, utility services could just as easily be merged in the private sector; there are reports, for instance, that AT&T might sell its cable-TV service to AOL–Time Warner. What’s to prevent AOLTW from selling telecommunications or energy as well? What’s to stop Southwestern Bell from acquiring PG&E Company, which PG&E Corporation has talked about spinning off?

Electricity, natural gas, sanitation, local phone service, and cable TV are already monopoly enterprises. The prospect of their ownerships consolidating is truly cause for alarm, and we shouldn’t expect antitrust regulators to prevent it.

Third, neither of California’s electricity MUDs — Sacramento and Lassen County — levies a property tax, and both charge lower rates than PG&E, according to data from the utilities themselves.

Fourth, the pro-public-power campaign is focusing only on local distribution of electricity. SFBMUD could certainly provide other utility services — or provide no utility services.

So you need to get to know the SFBMUD board candidates, as well as the ballot initiatives; vote for those directors whose views make the most sense to you.

We also need to elect a city attorney who will enforce the Raker Act, the 1913 federal law that let San Francisco build O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley on condition that the city provide power to retail customers at the lowest possible cost.

Finally, opponents claim SFBMUD would be another bureaucracy. Recall, please, the Vallejo woman who went 10 months without receiving a gas bill, then discovered the cost of heating her pool during that period was $18,000. Recall, please, the recent Bay Guardian story about local start-up businesses that lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenues while waiting several months for PG&E to turn their power on.

You’re afraid of a bureaucracy? You’re already saddled with one: PG&E.

It’s time to take back the power. Passing Measure I, and Propositions B, F, and H on November 6 will move us in that direction.

Ross Mirkarimi is director of the solar/public-power campaign. For additional information, visit www.publicpowernow.org and www.sfbmud.org.