Stevens County opts for private power on November 22, 1955.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/31/2006
  • Essay 7994
On November 22, 1955, voters in Stevens County decide to have Washington Water Power Co. provide their electricity rather than a public utilities district. It is the first time a county votes on the issue of private versus public power and is a reversal of a trend in which PUDs around the Northwest condemned the properties of private power companies to take control of electrical service and rates.

Public Versus Private Utilities

In 1930, Washington state voters approved an initiative allowing the formation of public utilities districts with the right of eminent domain. PUD commissioners could vote to condemn the property of private power companies and go into the electrical and water businesses themselves. For decades, Washingtonians chaffed at the poor service and high electrical rates offered by four private power companies. Rural areas usually went without electrical service because of the high expense of distribution networks against the low income from residential service. In Eastern Washington the Washington Water Power Company (WWP) had a monopoly on service. Public power supporters painted private power companies as arrogant and greedy. The private companies claimed that public power was wasteful, socialistic, anti-business, and anti-American.

In 1936, Stevens County formed a public utilities district and began distributing power from the Bonneville Power Administration and Columbia River dams. In 1953, the three commissioners started condemnation proceedings against WWP. State law did not require the commissioners to bring the issue of condemnation to voters. WWP responded with an offer to buy the PUD properties. WWP employees and supporters circulated petitions demanding a vote and the commissioners relented.

A County Divided

The issue of public versus private power sharply divided the county. Usually the Grange supported public power, but grange members split. Even families suffered in the controversy. Private power advocates claimed that instead of the $3.1 million quoted by the commissioners as the cost of WWP's 400-mile distribution network, the actual cost would be more than $4 million. Residents would have to pay the high cost out of bond issues. Posters, public meetings, direct mailings, and door-belling partisans argued the question.

A super-majority of 60 percent was required to carry the measure, which read, "Shall Public Utility District No. 1 sell its transmission, distribution and associated facilities to Washington Water Power Company for $2,905,000?" The vote was 5,008 to 2,019 in favor. The PUD continued as a supplier of drinking water.

Sources: Lawrence E. Davies, "Coast Area Split by Power Battle," The New York Times, November 20, 1955, p. 74; "Private Power Wins Election in the West," Ibid., November 24, 1955, p. 53; Ken Billington, People, Politics & Public Power (Seattle: Washington Public Utility Directors' Association, 1988), 118-20.

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