An annual examination and report from the Washington State Auditor’s Office (SAO) has given the Grays Harbor PUD high marks on Financial Statements and Accountability. The report included no findings in the two areas and complimented the PUD for conducting the audit under rules set by the COVID response.
“I want to thank the Accounting Department and the PUD staff for their outstanding work. This report tells our customers that they can trust their PUD and as a public entity, trust and faith from the customers is vital,” said Board of Commissioners President Russ Skolrood.
The report by the SAO covered the period of January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2019. In the area of accountability the report found that District operations complied in all material respects “with applicable state laws, regulations, and its (the PUD’s) own policies, and provided adequate controls over the safeguarding of public resources.” The final report also found that the PUD’s financial statements “present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position (of the PUD).”
Normally carried out at the PUD offices, the 2020 audit was handled remotely in compliance with COVID-19 precautions. SAO staff complimented the PUD for providing all needed documents electronically and setting up virtual meetings as needed and closed Wednesday’s exit conference by saying that while many audits have been carried out under COVID restrictions “none have gone more smoothly and cleanly than this one.”
The Grays Harbor PUD Board of Commissioners have approved a $127.6-million operating budget for 2021. The spending plan will invest $10.5-million in the utility system and infrastructure in the coming year and will spend roughly $70.8-million on the energy PUD customers rely on to power their homes and businesses.
“This budget really comes down to service, affordability and reliability,” said PUD Commission President Russ Skolrood. “The energy the utility purchases continues to be amongst the cleanest and most affordable in the country and the system that delivers that energy must do so while standing up to the rigors of the Grays Harbor environment. The investments the board has approved for the coming year will ensure that our customers can rely on those services to continue.”
In addition to energy costs, which make up 71% of the operating budget, the utility capital budget will invest $4.22-million in the utility distribution system, $2.11-million in the PUD transmission system, $2-million on utility substations, and $2.16-million on the utility general plant. Some of the standout projects include over $1-million spent on improvements to the Central Park, Scott Street and Montesano substations, concluding work on the Chehalis River Crossing Towers, extending the utility fiber system and maintaining and replacing the equipment that helps the PUD maintain system safety, reliability and affordability.
“Working together, the PUD Operations, Engineering and Telecommunications departments have identified the areas in which the utility needs to focus its attention and invest its resources,” said General Manager Dave Ward.
The 2021 budget will include a proposed 2% rate adjustment which will not be implemented until May. By waiting until the spring, the PUD staff have the time to assess utility finances and determine if the full adjustment is necessary.
“In 2020, the PUD chose not to go forward with our rate adjustment because of the impacts of COVID-19,” said Skolrood. “By waiting until after the winter, we have a better idea of where we will be financially and what we need to do to responsibly manage the 2021 budget.”
The coming year will also begin with the PUD continuing the measures taken to protect staff and customers from COVID-19 while continuing to provide the critical services its customers rely on. This will include the closure of the customer service lobby, remote working and meetings where and when possible, and the isolation of utility operations and telecommunications crews.
“The actions taken by the PUD have worked well,” said Ward. “Energy and telecom services are always critical to the residential and commercial communities of Grays Harbor, but during the COVID response, they have become even more so. Our ability to continue to provide those services in the midst of a pandemic response can give customers a sense of security and normalcy in a time when both are needed more than ever.”
Following an agreement with Grays Harbor County, the Grays Harbor PUD will begin using CARES Act dollars to aid customers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agreement, approved by the Board of County Commissioners and the Board of PUD Commissioners this week, will allow the PUD to apply $500,000 in federal aid to customer accounts. Customers who apply can receive financial assistance which will be applied to their account balances. To apply, customers must fill out the proper application which lists COVID related hardships that have impacted their household. Those hardships include: increased household expenses related to COVID-19, loss of income related to COVID-19 and other financial hardships directly related to COVID-19.
Due to federal guidelines, the CARES Act funding can only be used until the end of November, leaving customers just over one month to fill out their applications which will be accepted until Nov. 25th. Application forms are available online and at the PUD drive-up window. For more information, customers may contact the PUD Customer Service Office at 360-532-4220.
The Grays Harbor PUD and Summit Pacific Medical Center are seeking a pair of grants that when combined will expand the utility telecommunications network in East Grays Harbor County and the telehealth capabilities of the hospital district.
“In the current circumstances, the need for a robust and extensive fiber network is more important than ever,” said PUD Core Services Director Rob Hanny, whose office oversees the PUD Telecommunications Department. “The combined efforts of the PUD and Summit Pacific have the potential to address several areas of need for this area. Utility service, public health, economic development, the tribal community, and education could all see a positive impact if our partnership is successful.”
In seeking the $1.5-million Public Works Board grant, the PUD is continuing its fiber expansion efforts by bringing the utility fiber network into the communities of Cedarville, Porter, Malone and Oakville; areas that have been underserved in the area of internet access for several years. The most immediate benefit for the utility will be the connection of the Cedarville substation to the PUD fiber network, improving utility response time to outages and other service needs. A collateral impact of the expansion will be improved connections for area businesses, schools, farms, tribal community, and emergency response systems.
“A strong fiber network is the key to economic development in this area, but with so much business and education being done from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes a vital need for the entire area,” said Hanny. “We’ve heard stories of residents having to drive into Elma, just to check email and send in homework assignments. If businesses can’t connect with customers and students can’t attend online classes, you can’t expect them to cope with this crisis.”
The expansion of the fiber network down the Chehalis River Valley will also be a major benefit to patients of Summit Pacific Medical Center, who are now able to request virtual healthcare visits if they aren’t wanting to go out in public. Summit Pacific is seeking a grant to expand their telehealth services and capabilities to better support these efforts.
Summit Pacific’s Director of Care Innovation, Jennifer Brackeen shared, "Summit Pacific aims to expand access to patients by enhancing our telemedicine infrastructure and capabilities through our partnership with the Grays Harbor Public Utility District. Summit patients live all over Grays Harbor from McCleary to Westport. Some of them live in more remote areas such as Porter and Cedarville where internet access is less than ideal. We want patients to be able to have access to virtual health care across the county."
In early May, healthcare providers began seeing an alarming trend of people delaying care for injuries and worrisome symptoms – sometimes leading to hospitalizations that could have been avoided with earlier care. The reasons for delaying care include concerns about a higher risk for COVID-19 infection and worries that healthcare teams were too busy for them.
“What we don’t want to see is patients putting off their routine healthcare visits and putting themselves at increased risk of health crisis. While we have taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of our patients, we understand their concerns,” says Brackeen. "The combination of improving broadband access and mobile hot spots with increased access to care will get us one step closer to being the healthiest community in the Nation."
The Grays Harbor Public Utility District is notifying customers of a planned power outage on Fleetwood Ave. in Ocean Shores at 9:00 AM on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. The outage is expected to last until 3:00 PM on that day and will affect around 16 customers. Those impacted are residents on Fleetwood Ave., between the intersection with Ocean Shores Blvd and North Portal Loop. All impacted customers will receive a notification phone call from the PUD.
The outage will allow crews to complete pole replacement work in the area.
In preparation for this outage, customers are advised to take precautions with any electronic equipment such as computers, televisions, and microwaves by unplugging those items. You should leave them disconnected until after the power has been fully restored.
The outage time of six hours is only an estimate and power could be restored at any time as work is completed. Therefore, it is not safe to do home electrical work or repairs during that period.