Tribe's Utility Fee Still Under Fire



Yakima, WA - The state Attorney General's Office is considering filing a formal complaint against state regulators for refusing to negotiate the Yakama Nation's utility charge.

The announcement came Friday after the state Utilities and Transportation Commission rejected Attorney General Christine Gregoire's call earlier that the precedent-setting tribal ordinance needs more scrutiny.

The utility commission said it had already sufficiently considered the issue and its fate will ultimately be decided by a court.

Deputy Attorney General David Walsh said the complaint would probably argue that the commission should treat the nation's franchise fee as an expense that could be passed on to utility customers across the state.

That's common treatment for such fees, but the commission decided in December that the nation's charge was instead a tax.

That distinction allowed Pacific Power and Cascade Natural Gas to proceed with their request to recover the Yakama Nation's 3 percent fee only from customers on the reservation.

The tribal council passed the ordinance in August saying utilities have placed equipment on tribal lands where right of way agreements have either expired or were never approved.

Utilities say they haven't seen much proof of that claim.

Walsh and representatives for the Yakama government and Pacific Power and others expressed disappointment that the utilities commission declined to arrange mediation between the parties.

"It seems interesting that the UTC was the one that created the problem. Now, they seem to be the first one running away from solving it," said Elaine Willman, executive director of the Citizens Standup Committee.

The Toppenish group opposes the tribal charge being passed on to nontribal members and objects to the commission's interpretation of the charge. The group argues that any fee or tax imposed on nontribal members by the Yakama government is illegal.

The Utility Commission said it felt it had already sufficiently considered the tax-fee question.

And it noted that a lawsuit by the Standup Committee addresses the same issue. The state could also file a federal lawsuit.

The Tribal Council has delayed signing two temporary franchise agreements with Cascade and Pacific Power because of the tax-fee dispute.

Council leaders have said they may consider proceeding with trespass claims, as well as a higher straight tax, against the companies if the tax interpretation stands.

Qwest and Sprint are the other two state-regulated utilities affected by the franchise ordinance. The Klickitat County Public Utility District and Benton Rural Electric Association must independently decide how to pay the fee.


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