Ben Kostick has served as a commissioner of the Lewis County Public Utility District in Washington state since 2007 and serves as chair of the American Public Power Association’s Policy Makers Council. This interview occurred in conjunction with the Policy Makers Council Summer Fly-In meeting in late July.
Why are groups like the Policy Makers Council important for public power?
We’re told that being elected officials talking to other elected officials is more impactful and effective than a paid staff person doing the same thing. Their constituents are our constituents, we share that common bond.
I feel like this is an effective group. Since we meet in small groups, the summer fly-in feels like both sides are more relaxed and more willing to listen and interact.
Meeting two times a year (at the fly-in and the Legislative Rally), they get to recognize us and know us, and that makes conversations easier. Members and their staff usually are engaged and already informed on the topics we bring to them. If not, they are not afraid to ask questions.
We should be the people they come to if they have questions on energy issues. In my follow-up emails, I tell them that: “Please think of us first.”
How important is the relationship between the public power utility and local elected boards/commissions?
People have a wide range of thoughts on how the board should interact with the staff and management of the utility. I think it is important that we keep in touch. They know much more about the inner workings than any commissioner ever could.
In Washington state, the board has the responsibility for three employees at the utility — the general manager, the auditor, and the comptroller/chief financial officer. For some commissioners, those are the only three people they have any contact with. I try to interact with employees but not micromanage the utility. I don’t mind sitting down and having a cup of coffee with a tree trimmer or an IT department. Before I came to the summer fly in, I sat down with our power supply manager who is directly involved with Bonneville Power Administration to ask about specific issues, so that I could have more intelligent questions for our representatives.
Are there any legislative or regulatory concerns that keep you up at night?
It is our job to defend the principle of what public power stands for. Our job is really to fend off all the attacks on public power — and we’re getting attacked from many different sides.
Selling the power marketing agencies is a topic that won’t go away. Every administration seems to think it is a big, juicy apple hanging low on the tree. But once you pick that apple, it is gone. It is a one-time shot to the treasury, and then you don’t have that asset anymore.
The latest discussion around pole attachments is another attack on our philosophy. We own the poles, and we rent space on the pole at a rate based on our cost. Each utility is going to have a different cost. The effort to get the [Federal Communications Commission] to have a standard rate for every pole in the country takes away our local control and this cost-based approach.
How does your background as a CPA help when it comes to advocating for public power?
When I started coming [to Washington, D.C.] 11 years ago, being a CPA, I was asked to talk about the preservation of the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds. I can give examples of bond owners that aren’t rich millionaires. After about seven years, I asked the executive director of our state association if I was being effective. And his response was, “They are still tax exempt, right?”
Having a utility board made up of people with varied backgrounds makes a more well-rounded board. If you had a three-member board and all three were CPAs, I think you’d be in trouble. You need people with different backgrounds to bring different perspectives to each issue.
Our newest board member is the administrator of a nonprofit hospital. That’s a great background for a commissioner because they have seen both sides of the boardroom table.
I truly believe in the philosophy of public power — it is a great cause and it’s easy to advocate for.