November 21, 2013 | Vol. 39, No. 47

Energy committee to provide council with TBPA options

WRANGELL - The borough's energy committee asked borough administrator Jeff Jabusch to provide the borough assembly with data-driven assessments of options for the future of the Thomas Bay Power Authority.

Brian O\'Connor/ Petersburg Pilot
Wrangell Borough administrator Jeff Jabusch, left, confers with energy committee members Butch Schmidt, Dave Galla, and Brian Ashton as the meeting was breaking up Monday night.

The committee's Monday meeting was largely an informal affair, with most decisions being made by consensus instead of role-call votes. Committee members also honed in on the options for the TBPA, which has been stuck in limbo since the Petersburg borough council voted to withhold their portion of funding - known as net non-billable - for both the authority's office costs and associated travel costs for the TBPA Commission. Officials were still waiting for answers from an attorney on questions about the TBPA and its chief governing document, the Long-Term Power Sales Agreement. The full assembly has scheduled a public discussion of the matter for Dec. 3.

In discussion Monday night, committee members zeroed in an either/or dichotomy for the Authority's future. The options were that either TBPA becomes a line-item in the Wrangell borough budget, or that the Southeast Alaska Power Agency takes it over.

"There's really only two options," said borough manager Jeff Jabusch at one point.

Officials also discussed the Petersburg assembly's actions. Petersburg officials were motivated in part because of an implicit assumption or hope that the SEAPA headquarters would be located in Petersburg, committee members said. When the headquarters were instead located in Ketchikan, Petersburg officials lost a portion of the economic stimulus which would have come along with it in the form of jobs, committee members said. While the TBPA and commission represent an economic benefit for Wrangell in the form of salaried, locally residing employees who buy goods and services, eliminating the TBPA arrangement made sense to Petersburg in part because they paid the costs associated with the authority without seeing a corresponding economic benefit in terms of jobs, officials said.

"They (Petersburg) believe that if SEAPA runs it, they feel comfortable that they have a representation on there," Jabusch said. "They can eliminate some of these costs and still have representation."

SEAPA could also essentially nullify the TBPA operations and maintenance contract on their own after a period of time, and staff the plant with their own personnel, Jabusch said. In that regard, the offer made in September by SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson, under which SEAPA would absorb the TBPA and hire an additional staff member, might represent a relatively gentler outcome.

While officials expressed some reservations about how a transfer to SEAPA would occur at some point in the future, they seemed to gradually warm to at least the concept of SEAPA-run operations over the course of the discussion.

"SEAPA wants to run it," said committee member Butch Schmidt. "They want total control."

Jabusch disagreed.

"I don't think they would have a heartache if Thomas Bay kept running it," he said. "I don't think they'd have a good argument. They're letting Ketchikan do it, so if Wrangell and Petersburg wanted to run our own and pay it through Thomas Bay, I don't think SEAPA would have a problem with that. I think they would like to run it, and some of them are economic benefits."

The committee and assembly's top priority ought to be dealing with the situation involving Petersburg, said committee member Pamella McCloskey.

"That should be number one priority for what we need to figure out," she said. "We're already paying net non-billable here. Petersburg isn't."

Committee members would thus have to provide the assembly with models for decision making.

"Something has to be generated," Schmidt said.

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