Utilities Dominate Growth Decisions


Guest Post By

Less government? I’m not sure it’s possible to get less government unless we revert to Kurdish-style warlord-ruled fiefdoms. Hegemony anyone?
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More to the point, when we moved out to Boise in the 1980’s I was surprised by the number of basic services (water, gas, electricity, etc.) that were privately-owned.

Then, I shrugged my shoulders and deemed it a quaint western states phenomena – a throwback to enterprising service providers from old mining towns. Now, I’m not so sure it’s a pattern we need to continue forward.

It is almost impossible to provide solid, achievable, regional goals when they are constantly undermined by competing private interests. These interests aren’t those of private property owners, since they provide the core financial engine to our economy, but it’s the myriad of (near unregulated – don’t get me started on the band-aid PUC) private service providers that fall all over themselves to provide electricity, water, gas, etc. with no regard to the long-term health of the various communities. And, who in turn pass the costs of the new (unexpected) expenses of new service extensions on to their entire cadre of rate-payers.

This creates an environment-of-expectation – where if growth can be “purchased” today, then we shouldn’t have to worry about if it can be afforded tomorrow. Yet no one would ever dream of budgeting their household expenses in this manner.

In the Midwest many public utilities are still privately-held – but they are all non-profit co-ops. All of these utility companies’ shares are held by the people who actually recieve the services. And, it is these recipient-owners who set the rates and determine where service extension should (or shouldn’t) be run. Can you imagine the hew and cry from the overseas Board of Directors and Shareholders of the Suez Corporation if they had the capacity to provide water to a proposed local development, yet the company’s local administrators refused to provide hook-ups because the development (regardless of how much money the developer was willing to upfront) wasn’t consistent with the community’s Comprehensive Plan?

Comments & Discussion

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  1. Thanks, Curious George, for your article. I agree entirely. I vaguely remember when Boise Water Co. changed its name but I was unaware that it was sold to a foreign company. My brother and sister-in-law in North Idaho run a small water district for the people who draw on it and they have been approached by foreign companies to sell (my brother doesn’t own any more of the co-op than anyone else) but so far the participants have rejected the idea of foreign ownership. Boise Water was, to my knowledge always privately owned, by it was owned by Boiseans. (Someone correct me if I am wrong.)

    Remember a few years back, in the rush to deregulation, how California got taken to the cleaners and Idaho just missed out on that big mistake. I believe Idaho Power had one of their “Ida-whatever” companies set up to cash in on that deal, but they quietly paid off the manager and gave that illegitimate offspring up for adoption. Anyone with more knowledge please post. I am working off my memory here.

    It is my opinion that all necessary goods and services, including water and power, should be publically owned or at the very least aggressively regulated.

  2. I am not sure how non-publicly elected officials in a utility co-op who don’t have any authority to write or enforce comprehensive plans will produce better Comprehensive Plans. The utility providers only provide hook-ups after a city/county has approved a development.

    Guess it could be a safety net to ensure that local elected officials don’t have to do their jobs. Maybe instead we should require local agencies to prove that services should/can be provided and that long term operations and maintenance funding mechanisms are in place prior to approval of any development. Of course to prove that new developments won’t pay their way in the long run would require all of us already here to admit we aren’t paying our fair share either. Both current and new resident are contributing to the infrastructure and service deficit we continue to add to every day.

  3. Not to disagree really, but to answer how non-publicly elected officials might be able to produce better comp plans: Elected officials do NOT write comp plans. Staffs of urban planners write comp plans. In the public sector, salaries offered for planners often recruit only the most mediocre of skill sets.

    Private sector (especially utilities where the big bucks really reside) can afford to recruit the best planners. So, truly, if Qwest, IdaCorp, or Intermountain Gas want into the comprehensive planning business, my money would be on them being able to produce the better plan, albeit self-serving. My observation and experience with City’s comp planning process is that it also is self-serving with mediocre results.

  4. Excellent points made by Brother Curious George.

    I occasionally hear, “Oh… the Boise metro area could NEVER expand and sprawl like the Los Angeles basin has – there’s just not enough water!”

    But I don’t know what that means. We probably have MORE nearby water than the L.A. area. And I can’t imagine Corey Barton saying, “Golly, Mr. Smith. We’d love to buy up your pasture land and build 800 new crackerbox houses, but there’s just not enough water.”

  5. Rumors always swirl about Corey Barton- most famous is he sold out. I heard one that he has land purchased/optioned for the next 15 years. Sounds like he has been planning……LOTS! Maybe the utilities and local gov. should be talking to him.

  6. Tam,
    Couldn’t agree more with the general lack of quality in public sector planners…I have met a few great ones…but generally they work for the government because they can’t work in the private sector. That said, whether staff planners or elected officials write the plan matters not, the elected officials..i.e. City Councils and County Commissions are the only ones capable of enforcing the plans. My immpression of the long range planning efforts of the major utilities is that they do produce better, more detailed plans. They typically plan in 50 year windows, not 10-20. Best idea yet, Idaho Power’s new long range plan is planning for build-out of the valley, wether it happens next week or in 1000 years.

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