Council may attach sunset clause to utility rates

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By Tris DeRoma

A discussion between members of the Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities about gas rate changes and a county council liaison may lead to the council requiring sunset clauses on all rate changes the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities makes.
County Council Liaison and Vice Council Chair Susan O’Leary told the board that the sunset clauses are necessary.
By adding a sunset clause to a rate, it puts a set retirement date on the rate change.
Board Chairman Jeff Johnson disagreed with O’Leary. Johnson said there are already mechanisms in place that allow council to review rate changes, therefore a sunset clause was not necessary.
The points were made during a discussion about whether or not the board would consider adding a sunset clause to the most recent gas rate that was approved by county council on Sept. 27, 2016.
The rate was passed without a sunset clause.
DPU Manager Tim Glasco told the board the reason they rushed the last-minute council approval on Sept. 27 was because they were caught off guard.
“We were starting to draft a new (gas rate change) ordinance when we got the legal opinion from the attorney’s office that no, there was no backstop in this,” Glasco said. “I would offer that if the board wants to offer a sunset clause in the future, we would have to specifically state what happens in the event it sunsets. That would alleviate the issue of not having a backstop.”
He also noted that DPU did give fair notice of the new rate change through meetings with council leadership.
Regardless, the Sept. 27 vote upset many county councilors, including O’Leary.
I had to decide whether or not that the policy issue was so important that it was worth putting the county and the utility department and our citizens in that position, where we were an embarrassment, where we didn’t have rates and we had to do a lot of clean up as a result of that.”
During the discussion, it was suggested by the BPU that there were already mechanisms in place to protect residents from huge fluctuations in rate hikes.  
“I think the charter is set up where the (BPU) board sets up, reconsiders and makes recommendations of rates to council and council votes on them. Putting a sunset clause on this starts to change the intent of the charter, and I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” Johnson said.
“I am mystified at the resistance that you wouldn’t want a sunset clause yourself. To me, a sunset clause is a mechanism for a rate discussions,” O’Leary said. “Its an opportunity for oversight. What you’re  telling me as an individual counselor is that I either need to either go thumbs up or thumbs  down from now on, because if there’s some part of a rate or a budget that could use some work, my comments aren’t’ going to matter and so I’m going to have to vote now. I just want you to know that’s the message I’m getting, and I think it’s unfortunate.”
O’Leary then said that she will take the matter as to whether or not council should require the BPU attach sunset clauses to all its utility rates.