SSJID can boot PG&E from Ripon, Escalon, Manteca

Electricity service in Ripon, Escalon and Manteca may pass from private to public management, thanks to Thursday’s landmark decision favoring the South San Joaquin Irrigation District over Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The 3-2 ruling caps a decade of South San Joaquin effort to take control over delivering power to about 110,000 people from the investor-owned utility and hand it to the irrigation district’s locally elected board of directors.

“Based on the evidence I’ve seen, SSJID should be given the chance,” said Ripon Councilman Jake Parks in his role as a member of the San Joaquin Local Agency Formation Commission.

“I believe we should take calculated risks,” Parks continued. Without courage, he said, “nobody would do anything.”

Attorneys, engineers and other experts debated nearly 11 hours over two days whether South San Joaquin can make good on a bold promise to lower electric bills 15 percent. PG&E representatives insisted that’s impossible and predicted rates would rise.

“Fifteen percent is certainly a pie-in-the-sky projection,” said PG&E’s Dylan George.

Commission staff members, who had conducted an independent analysis, agreed, saying South San Joaquin might lower rates only 2.5 percent to break even.

The district said many factors remain unknown and asked for a chance to find out. The process likely will involve South San Joaquin seizing PG&E’s facilities with government’s power of eminent domain, with a jury ultimately deciding how much South San Joaquin should compensate the company. Its experts say the value is more than $600 million.

The threat of forcing a sale seems “most distasteful,” said Commissioner Michael Maciel, a Tracy councilman. Commission Chairman Steve Nilssen, representing the public, agreed.

“I suspect there will be a certain amount of bloodshed in court,” predicted Stockton land-use attorney Steve Herum.

Maciel and Nilssen were outvoted by Parks and San Joaquin County Supervisors Larry Ruthstaller and Ken Vogel.

A few south county residents endured the nearly 11 hours of expert testimony to offer a combined 25 minutes of public comment Thursday.

“The current provider has a long history of squandering the public trust,” said Chuck Rivara of Escalon.

Roger Beauchamp of Manteca agreed, saying, “PG&E doesn’t respond to our needs and puts profits in front of the well-being of their customers. Fire ’em.”

“I know one thing – SSJID’s track record (of delivering irrigation and drinking water) is first class,” said Bill Filios, a Manteca developer.

Five residents spoke in favor of PG&E, but all also work for the utility giant.

“We live here, we work here and we’re passionate about our community,” said Manteca’s Rodney Fryer, a PG&E building manager.

“I’m worried that customers will be left in the dark,” said Rob Cosmero, an electric supervisor in Manteca. “A lot are my friends and family.”

The promise of local accountability and lower rates won the day, but the monumental decision leaves about 1,500 families and farms in limbo. They’re in a so-called border area sandwiched between the district’s southern boundary and the Stanislaus River.

The Modesto Irrigation District, which serves some people in that area, has no agreement to take more and can’t be compelled.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.