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State agency appeals prior court ruling as PUD, others, gear up for new lawsuit

After jointly suing the Oregon Department of Energy and winning, Columbia River People's Utility District plans to legally contest its most recent bill from the state agency.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia River PUD directors vote in favor of joining a joint lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Energy during a public meeting Tuesday, Oct. 17. Pictured left to right: Directors Harry Price, Debbie Reed, Jake Carter and Craig Melton. Director Rob Mathers was absent.In 2015, Columbia River PUD and eight other PUDs in Oregon jointly filed a complaint against the energy department, challenging the legality of a 2016 Energy Supplier Assessment, or ESA, levied to utility districts throughout the state.

The energy department continued to bill utility districts in Oregon with increasingly higher assessments and little explanation or accounting for the rising annual costs. The PUD's 2017 assessment was $42,000, according to the district.

Earlier this year, a circuit judge in Marion County ruled the assessments were taxes subject to state constitutional requirements for bills that bring in revenue to a state agency. The judge ordered the state energy department to pay back the assessments paid by each utility for 2016. The energy department has since appealed the ruling.

The PUD is owed an estimated $33,400, court documents show.

PUD directors voted Tuesday evening to re-engage in litigation against the state, this time challenging a 2017 ESA.

This time around, the district's legal fees will be capped at $5,000 — much less than the $25,000 the PUD authorized for the 2015 complaint.

"The 2016 ESA challenge was a success," John Nguyen, the PUD's general manager, told board directors. "Oregon Department of Energy did

not follow statutory procedure."

Director Craig Melton asked whether the next assessment would also be contested. Nguyen said it's possible, noting the first round of litigation took about two years.

"Hopefully this sets a precedent," Melton said, before making a motion to approve the PUD joining a new lawsuit.

The state energy department was created to regulate energy facilities and develop efficiency programs. Court rulings indicate that in addition to implementing what amounts to an illegal tax, the agency failed to hold adequate public meetings regarding the ESAs.

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