James K. Brooks

Will Senator Wyden help protect the residents of Douglas County from further impacts of Snowmageddon?

As general manager of Douglas Electric, a non-profit, member-owned electric cooperative that serves mostly rural areas of Douglas County, I was tasked with managing the cooperative through the most destructive storm in our company’s history. To put the size of the storm in context, our costliest storm event prior to last Feb. 24 resulted in approximately $350,000 in damage. This storm cost approximately $10 million. We recorded more overtime in February and March than we had in the last 10 years combined. Our small workforce of 35 employees swelled to 184 at the height of the restoration effort, and it took over three weeks before the last member’s service was restored. Our visiting contract crews stated that they had never worked a service territory as remote and difficult as ours.

When the storm had passed and power was restored, our focus shifted from restoration to recovery. Typically, small non-profit utilities like ours rely on a combination of loans and funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid in recovery from natural disasters. This is true for every electric cooperative in the nation for that matter, whether its hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding or events like ours.

For the first time, however, an unintended consequence of 2017 tax legislation puts cooperatives like Douglas Electric at risk of losing their tax-exempt status. An electric cooperative can only get FEMA funds if they are a non-profit. As the law stands now, if they take funds to help recover from a disaster, it may lose their non-profit status and the government can take back a sizable chunk of the money they just granted in the form of taxes. The cooperative will already spend millions for storm recovery no matter what, and this could add millions more.

Douglas Electric Cooperative is a non-profit, owned by the members we serve, and these expenses will eventually get passed down through the rates our members pay.

This is not a Republican problem or a Democrat problem. This is a problem for all citizens who live in rural America. The good news is that almost everyone in Washington D.C. seems to understand that this is a huge problem and have drafted legislation to fix it. Fortunately for us, there is bipartisan support for the bill.

When it was learned that Sen. Wyden’s leadership could be key to getting this correction out of the Senate Finance committee to be voted on, we were excited and extremely hopeful. What a great opportunity for our senator and advocate to represent his Douglas County constituents on such an important issue. Thousands of businesses and residences in rural Oregon are counting on his support for the Revitalizing Under-Developed Rural Areas Act, but he needs to act quickly.

James K. Brooks is the General Manager for Douglas Electric Cooperative, a non-profit electric utility serving almost 10,000 members in north and west Douglas County.

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