KIUC: Fee election to cost $63,000

LIHUE — An upcoming election to vote on whether Kauai Island Utility Cooperative should be charging additional fees to customers who choose to keep their old electric meters is pegged to cost about $63,000.

The election will be conducted by Merriman River Group, an election management services company on the Mainland, the KIUC Board of Directors said Tuesday. A date for the election has not been set.

About $30,000 will go to the company, while the rest will pay for the printing and postage of ballots, according to co-op spokesman Jim Kelly.

KIUC’s Board of Directors voted 7-1 Tuesday to budget for the estimated costs.

Jonathan Jay said he and the other drafters of the petition to get the issue on a ballot are scheduled to meet with KIUC officials today to discuss details of the election.

“There are many steps that still must be taken,” Jay wrote in an email. “Ballot language is still (to) be drafted, and then there must be a special public meeting … so that the full membership has the chance to review and comment on the ballot language.”

The fees, which were approved by the Public Utilities Commission last month, include a one-time set-up fee — ranging from $50.64 to $138.80 — as well as a monthly fee of $10.27 for customers who opt not to use a standard wireless smart meter.

However, a petition drafted by Jay and two other local residents to reject both charges received the necessary 250 valid signatures, sending the item to a vote by cooperative members.

If a simple majority support the measure, the extra costs of reading and servicing the old meters would be shared by the entire membership, instead of just those who opted not to have the new technology.

Out of the utilities 30,000 customers, about 3,000 have opted not to have a smart meter. Many have voiced concerns about health and privacy.

All co-op members will be allowed to cast a vote.

On Tuesday during the board’s meeting, eight people testified on the smart meter issue, which has been in the public eye even before they started to be installed in 2012. At times, the discussion became combative.

Adam Asquith, also a drafter of the petition, said the last time he came before the board he was “begging” for KIUC to alter its policy which, at the time, allowed the co-op to install smart meters without consent.

In March 2012, Asquith filed a complaint in U.S. District Court to prevent the co-op from installing one on his home, and in May of the same year the two parties reached a court settlement in which KIUC agreed it wouldn’t.

“Now,” Asquith told the board Tuesday, “we find us in a peculiar situation where I have vocalized my fear of the threat of invasion of my life and my privacy by the organization, and you’ve offered to not do that if I pay an additional fee.”

He asked the utility to reconsider the policy of charging the fees or, at the very least, cease charging them until the full membership votes on the matter.

KIUC President and CEO David Bissell said the tariff is enforced by the PUC and “has the force of law.”

“The PUC says, ‘You will put this charge in place,’” he said. “So, even if the board wanted to defer this until it was all settled, they do not have the ability to do so.”

Asquith’s testimony caused several people in the audience to clap before Board Chair Allan Smith intervened.

“That’s not necessary,” he said. “You guys want to play games, go outside. And, we will maintain order here. No drama.”

Kathleen Viernes, of Kapaa, discussed her concerns with privacy and said more and more people are going to begin questioning the technology.

“I do not see evidence that this board of KIUC is truly appreciating the road that you have taken us all down by drinking the smart meter Kool-Aid without deep consideration for its negative aspects or its appropriateness for this small island community,” she said.

Ultimately, Jay said the full membership will make a decision.

“While this issue is unresolved, KIUC management should not jump the gun, should not put the cart before the horse, should not charge fines or fees to members who have retained their traditional electric meters, and should not pursue a policy that does not yet have membership approval,” he testified.

Smith told Jay he was looking forward to meeting with him and other petitioners about the upcoming election, but their request to cease and desist charging the fees was not the board’s call.

KIUC has no more power to suspend fees than it has to change its rates, Kelly wrote in an email.

On Tuesday afternoon, Asquith filed a complaint in Fifth Circuit Court against KIUC seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

He said the co-op was precocious in its billing and hopes the court will stop the utility from charging him to protect his privacy.

Responding by email, Kelly said he was not aware that a complaint had been filed.

“Who says the utility business is dull?!?” he wrote.

The approved fees took effect Nov. 4, with those customers who have opted not to have smart meters paying the extra costs of manually reading and servicing their old meters. The minimum price tag for the additional nonsmart meter fees is $173.88 for the first year.

KIUC has said spreading the cost to all its customers would work out to just under $1 per month.

Board member Peter Yukimura cast the lone dissenting vote.

• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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