Power fines shock LA County

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Thursday, January 25, 2001 8:28 AM MST Power fines shock county Officials mull switch to DWP

By Troy Anderson Staff Writer

The county of Los Angeles may have to turn off power to hospitals, jails and other county facilities after paying nearly $14 million in penalties to keep its electricity on during the last two months.

With only a $50 million budget surplus this year, county officials said Wednesday they are scrambling to find ways to stop paying the penalties and switch county government to power supplied by the energy-rich Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"We are paying fines to keep our prisons and hospitals functioning," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "The illogic of this is, if we don't want to be fined, we would have to shut down our prisons and let prisoners run loose."

Under a power agreement signed with Southern California Edison Co., the county receives a 15- to 17-percent discount on its bills for participating in an "interruptible" program.

But during shortages the county is supposed to turn off the power or pay stiff penalties for keeping juice flowing to county facilities served by Edison.

About one-third of county facilities are served by DWP in Los Angeles city limits. But the remaining two-thirds of the facilities outside the city -- including health clinics, sheriff's stations and social service offices -- are served by Edison and face blackouts.

Faced with a $50 million increase in its natural gas and power bills this fiscal year, the Board of Supervisors voted Jan. 16 to explore obtaining electricity from DWP and other alternative sources.

Yaroslavsky flew to Sacramento last week to lobby for legislation to get the county out of its power contract, let it switch to DWP power and forgive the penalties the county has incurred. Although the county has saved $10 million on the interruptible power contract, the county will have paid $13.7 million in penalties by Jan. 30, said Jim Abbott, a general manager in the county's Internal Services Department.

"This has been a big financial hit on the county," Yaroslavsky said. "Our energy costs are budgeted at $100 million a year for power and gas but we now projecting it will go up to $150 million. That's an increase overnight of 50 percent.

DWP Chief of Staff Frank Salas said the city is willing to consider handling all the county's power needs.

"It's best to spend the money for kids, books and taking care of the sick rather than spending it on electricity," Salas said. "To the extent that we can support public entities, we'll take a look at the legislation."

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday to step up energy conservation efforts in the county by reducing power consumption by 7 to 10 percent by the end of the year.

In an effort to keep penalties down and power flowing to vital county services, County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said the county is considering turning off the power at some facilities, although he would not say where.

Most county hospitals are located in the city of Los Angeles and are supplied power by DWP.

But the High Desert Hospital in Lancaster, Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center in Willowbrook, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey are supplied by other utilities.

"We have backup generators at the hospitals, including UCLA-Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar," health department spokesman John Wallace said. Department of Health Services Director Mark Finucane sent guidelines to all county health officials last week instructing them to provide uninterrupted patient care during blackouts and to keep employees at work.

County libraries do not have backup generators, but do have emergency lighting systems that allow people to exit safely.

Sheriff's Department Lt. Joe Arteaga said all sheriff's stations and jails, including the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic and the Mira Loma Detention Facility, have backup generators in case of blackouts.

"The generators would allow us to perform basic functions for one or two days," he said. "Edison said our jails, hospitals and fire departments are not affected by blackouts."

At the Mira Loma facility, a county jail in Lancaster that houses immigrants awaiting deportation for crimes, auxiliary generators have been running sporadically to carry some of the power load, sheriff's Deputy Dave Miklos said.

Generators also may be switched on for an hour or so daily at nearby Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a probation camp for some 700 teenage offenders. Camp officials have already been switching off computers and lights in offices, although lights in the dormitories stay on for safety reasons.

"I'm sitting in the dark right now," Superintendent Willie Doyle said Wednesday.

-- Staff Writer Charles Bostwick contributed to this report. Troy Anderson can be reached at (818) 713-3000.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 25, 2001

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