OPINION: What it takes to keep the lights on in Forest Grove
As a newly appointed Forest Grove city councilor, and one who admittedly had never paid much attention to how any of the services in this self-service city were delivered, the learning curve has been massive.
Understanding more about how the city operates has made me realize how much I was taking for granted — it highlighted the kind of support our city departments need in order to continue to provide these essential services to everyone equitably.
One of my first tours was the Light and Power department.
I was given the literal "bird's-eye-view" from 90 feet up in the bucket with Jordan and Ken, at the top of a power pole, which I learned is no longer referred to as a "telephone pole."
Later that day, touring one of four substations with Rick and Darrel, I saw the inside view of how Darrel runs through daily checks of maintenance and also the creative troubleshooting done to keep our four substations running.
Currently, most of our city has been able to watch — in real time — one of the most significant and complex projects in the city department's history: the rerouting of the "Filbert/Thatcher 115 Tie Line" transmission line, which will prevent the four-second outages that have been occurring on the west side of town for years. This has required the skills from every single one of the employees in addition to the creativity and leadership from the crew leads, like Jim and our director, Keith Hormann.
The Light and Power department, much like Public Works, employs professionals who work "behind the scenes" — sometimes out of sight, many times at night or on a weekend, and often times troubleshooting on the spot in different areas of the city — unseen work that makes the essential services we depend on each day like water, power and heat readily available to all.
Forest Grove Light and Power does not profit from a rate increase. We charge rates to recover costs only. Our lineman are paid deservedly competitive salaries — retaining and recruiting lineman is extremely difficult, especially in rural areas like ours.
Rate increases for the public only occur when it is necessary to maintain the level of service — and staff that is required to deliver it — that we all access. These rate increases ensure that we can maintain the equipment that keeps our linemen safe — investments that show our staff that their safety is our top priority. They allow us to staff our department with linemen, journeymen, apprentices, tree trimmers and office staff who can then respond to situations efficiently.
One example is that when power is down — like the outage last month due to a car running into a power pole on B Street — the response by our crews is immediate and provides power back to homes and businesses as quickly as possible. Sometimes these services aren't noticed until they aren't available, but your electric rates afford you the benefit of top-notch service from a professionally trained and loyal staff. You are getting the highest-value service for your money that your money and this city can provide.
Sensitive to the changing needs and circumstances of our community, our city budget includes a line item for energy assistance, and our staff works with each homeowner who may need help paying their bills in any given month. We also support homeowners in helping them access assistance funds from Washington County, and currently, we have a low percentage of our community who is past due on any notice. This is a testament to the commitment of our staff to make sure the needs of every community member is met with compassion and care.
At a recent City Council meeting, we heard from community members who brought valid questions about the equity of the increase in rates. We heard from councilors who talked about the challenges of having these increases at a time when many are struggling.
A compromise of 3.5% increase was reached, but this now means we will have to dip into a reserves fund to make sure we can maintain the level of service at the standard our community expects and deserves. That reserve fund is not a bottomless funding source — it will eventually need to be replenished.
There are continued conversations for council and the community to have in the next two years about how to make sure we have the funding we need to support the services we have.
I believe as our community learns more about the work our department does, the high level at which they do it, and the fact that they are a nonprofit entity, support for continued increases when warranted will continue. Taking time to check out the Light and Power webpage, programs, and even calling to ask questions are all ways we can work together to increase awareness and understanding of a complex set of systems and how they are working for you, the community member.
In a city, it is easy to remember to thank our public employees who may be a little more "high-profile," like our firefighters, teachers and police officers. It's not often you see a Halloween costume that is a lineman or tree-trimmer, for instance.
Our public employees are the types of heroes that are sometimes overlooked, and maybe much more so because of the behind-the-scenes nature of their work. Whether we increase the electric rates or not, the employees are out on those lines today, keeping you safe and keeping the lights on. That is the kind of professionals they all are.
I urge this community to take a moment to share your appreciation, learn more about all they have to offer, and to thank them for putting their lives on the line each day for all of us.
Kristy Kottkey is a Forest Grove city councilor.
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