Opt-outs may cost $150,000

Allowing Ashland residents to opt out of having "smart" utility meters could cost the city government $12,000 to $150,000 and lead to increased electric bills for all customers, according to city staff members.

Smart meters send out radio frequency waves so that meter readers don't have to come onto people's property to manually read electric meters, saving the Ashland Electric Department and utility billing division time and money.

But some residents fear the radio frequency signals can cause everything from headaches, dizziness and sleep disturbances to cancer.

Scientists differ on whether there are significant adverse health impacts from radio frequency-emitting devices such as smart meters, cellphones, cellphone towers and routers for wireless computer use. But they generally agree that more research is needed on the topic.

In May, city staff members proposed that households be charged $120 for opting out of smart meter use, plus additional charges of $20 per month.

Ashland City councilors rejected those fees and instead supported a no-fee opt-out policy.

Within a week of that decision, the number of opt-out requests grew to 150, according to city staff.

If just the current number of opt-out requests are honored and no fees are imposed, increased costs to the Electric Department would be an estimated $12,000 to $15,000, city staff said.

However, on Tuesday, Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg advised City Council member to budget $150,000 to meet the total possible costs in the coming fiscal year for additional staffing, supplies and equipment for an opt-out program.

The fiscal year starts on July 1.

City councilors adopted a $103.2 million city government budget on Tuesday night that included authorizing use of $150,000 in Electric Department reserves for an opt-out program.

Tuneberg said he already plans to ask the City Council in August or September to approve an electric rate increase because the Bonneville Power Administration is likely to increase the cost of electricity it wholesales to Ashland's Electric Department. The exact amount of the electric rate increase isn't known yet.

Tuneberg said he will need to ask for a larger increase to cover smart meter opt-out costs if the council doesn't impose fees to cover costs.

Councilors ran out of time and ended their Tuesday meeting before reaching an agenda item to reconsider the previous no-fee opt-out policy. Councilors David Chapman and Mike Morrison had requested that the council reconsider the May no-fee decision.

City staff members now have proposed an opt-out policy with more modest fees. Opting out would be free, unless residents missed opt-out deadlines. Then they would be charged a $60 fee.

Every household that forgoes a smart meter in a neighborhood with smart meters would be charged a $5 monthly fee.

About 45 percent of Ashland households already have smart meters. The city of Ashland began installing the devices in the late 1990s.

On June 19, the council will take up the issue of whether to reconsider the no-fee opt-out policy. The council meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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