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Electric, stormwater issues make it to Columbia’s April ballot

The Columbia City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to add two utility-related issues to the April 7 ballot.

The first issue, titled “Proposition 1” would ask voters if the city should borrow $63.1 million in bonds to pay for electric projects through the next five years. More than half of the bond money would go towards a transmission line project on the city’s south side. The council approved that project in 2013, in light of a report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation citing the city for the potential of cascading outages due to lack of electric capacity.

“This is not us deciding we want to fix this because we’d like new transmission lines,” Mayor Bob McDavid said before voting to put it on the ballot. “This is us fixing this because the overseers of our professionals are telling us we have to do it.”

Some residents questioned the city’s need to use transmission lines to provide that capacity, and called for an emphasis on renewable energy. Third Ward councilman Karl Skala asked Columbia Water & Light pursue that course of action, while supporting the use of bond funding to help pay for $87 million worth of projects.

“Put this bond out there, let the folks vote on it, but also make sure that we’re focusing on alternatives here that will either reduce the amount of bonding that we need to do in the future, or at least reassure the public that we are really looking out after their best interests in terms of supplying them with energy,” Skala said.

If voters approve the bond issue, Columbia Water & Light has said electric rates would rise six percent beginning in late spring until 2018 to repay the 30-year bonds. However, the department said the city must build the transmission line project – an estimated $36 milion project – even if the bond issue fails. If so, department head Tad Johnson said rates could rise as much as 25-percent. Johnson could not tell the council a schedule of increases to reach that amount, but said they would work on one for “our rate payers’ best interest.”

The council also approved a stormwater ballot issue, which would raise the utility fee by 25-percent for the next five years.

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