West Oregon Electric Cooperative members circulate petition to leave co-op

This is a first in an ongoing series about the West Oregon Electric Co-op, and in general electric co-ops within the state of Oregon. The next will delve into organizational finances, state rules regarding co-ops, and their nonprofit status’. West Oregon Electricity Co-op provides service to rural communities and towns in NW Oregon including Vernonia, portions of Buxton, Manning, Timber, Hagg Lake, Yamhill County and more. 

Vernonia – Members of West Oregon Electric Co-op (WOEC) service District 6, are circulating a petition that so far has 26 signatures to request a hearing with the WOEC’s board directors to allow the customers to leave WOEC.

Currently, PGE prices would allow WOEC customers to pay considerably less. Removing those members/customers from WOEC’s District 6 would allow Portland General Electric (PGE) to provide their electricity at rates of about $0.12 per kilowatt hour.

As of July 1, 2018, WOEC raised its rates for electricity consumption by $3 per month to $42 per meter. The company suggested that each structure on a property owner’s land, be it a barn, outbuilding or a second business building, have a meter installed. In one case, one private landowner has five meters on their property, though they wished to remain nameless for this story as to “not be targeted by the WOEC board.”

Members who use what’s known by WOEC as “The Block 1” rate will now be charged $0.1545 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) while The Block 2 members will be charged $0.119 per kWh hour; both increases were passed by the board last summer.

Information published on WOEC’s website says residential customers currently pay $42 per meter, pay a Block One charge of $0.1493 per kWh to $0.1141 for kWh for Block Two customers.

This compares to $11 per meter and $0.12 per hour provided to residential customers by PGE.

In the August 2018 edition of Ruralite Magazine — a trade publication that reaches more than 3,200 subscribers locally, a WOEC employee who wished to remain nameless stated, and about 330,000 throughout Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Montana, according to its website — Robert VanNatta, board chairman of WOEC’s District 2, which serves the communities of Apiary, Mist and Birkenfield, wrote in a piece titled the “2018 Board President’s Report” that “of course, when there is no news, people get bored and ‘discover’ things that have been the case for 50 years.”

VanNatta continued, “One thing that periodically gets rediscovered is that: West Oregon Electric Cooperative’s rates probably qualify as the highest in Oregon — not the highest on the planet or the highest in the country, but the highest in Oregon, which is a state with quite low rates compared to other states…”

“More telling,” he continued, “West Oregon is one of the newer utilities in Western Oregon, incorporated around 75 years ago near the end of World War II. Most of our neighboring communities have had electricity since the end of the 19th century. I grew up with a classic Aladdin gas lamp in the middle of the kitchen table and (I) am among the declining number of WOEC residents who remember when the light came on.”

Former Vernonia Mayor Sallie Harrison says she also is old enough to remember when the region received electricity. Harrison is among the residents who want to see WOEC’s District 6 taken over and operated by PGE. “WOEC has this small service area where PGE does not work,” she said. “They are literally holding us hostage because they have (rights to) this service area. And we have no federal or state organization (WOEC) is answerable to.”

An Oregon Public Utilities spokesperson told the Banks Post that Harrison is correct — there is no organization or entity that exists within the state of Oregon that oversees its electricity cooperatives, so even if the signers of the District 6 petition win their hearing, the WOEC board of directors has the right to simply say, “No,” and members of District 6 have no standard avenue of appeal.

District 6 members do, however, have the attention of PGE and at least one WOEC Board Chairman.

Steve Corson, a spokesperson for PGE said the company has been contacted by “some members of the co-op process who are reaching out to sit down and talk to better understand what the situation is here, how many customers are involved and what the process would be if we agreed to go forward with the switch, or essentially trade service territory.”

“There isn’t a cookie cutter that says, “DO X, Y, and Z,’ and it happens,” Corson said. “We really have more questions than answers at this stage of the process.”

Larry Heesacker said that even though he is the board representative for District 7, the most western portion of WOEC’s territory, that he has been getting “quite a few calls” from his constituents who asked if he is opposed to looking into switching over to PGE to supply their power.

“I asked (the board) if they would oppose me looking into it,” Heesacker said. “I want to investigate to see if we could have a chance of success. We can’t ignore this many phone calls from our members. I would like to at least know what the process is. What worked 40-50 years ago (when they first divided up service territories) doesn’t seem like a good idea today. That’s why I support looking into changing it. I got on the board because there is a lot of stuff to look at. It’s pretty intense.”

WOEC members interested in more information, or joining the petition, email memberownerswoec@gmail.com

Due to a decimal place error, we originally quoted PGE’s rate incorrectly. This has now been fixed. We regret the error and appreciate our readers who helped catch it.

An astute reader pointed out a couple of typos, including the date of the Ruralite magazine, which is NOT from 2918, but rather 2018. If you see an error, please email us at news@bankspost.com. 

Larry Heesacker is the full name of the district 7 director – this article omitted his first name originally. 

Daniel Pearson

Daniel Pearson holds a bachelors in journalism and an MBA in marketing. He’s a10-time, Oregon SPJ award-winning journalist, a two-time winner of an ADDY (advertising) for copywriting, and a one-time award winner for fiction for the NW Coastal Writer’s Series. Email: daniel@bankspost.com Twitter: @rosecitywriting