Tax may pay for undergrounding wires

Officials solicit residents’ input on proposal after CPUC funds run out

With no money left to put telephone and other utility wires underground, The City is contemplating a tax to fund future undergrounding projects.

Residents have until Friday to weigh in on whether San Francisco should implement a utilities bill tax ranging between 2 percent and 5 percent. Only businesses pay a utilities tax, which is 7.5 percent of their utility bill.

The City's Utility Undergrounding Task Force has created an online survey to gauge residents’ sentiment, and the task force will use the results to determine whether to move forward with a tax proposal. The online survey asks whether participants would support a $2 to $4 per-month surcharge on their monthly Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bill to pay for putting utility lines underground.

Dan McKenna of The City’s Department of Public Works said the tax would be levied against those who receive a utilities bill and that it would tax electrical, and possibly gas, usage.

Over the past 40 years, the Department of Public Works has undergrounded 450 miles of the approximately 900 miles of roadways in San Francisco, McKenna said.

The northeast side of San Francisco, including Nob Hill, has most of its utilities already undergrounded. The Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods have the fewest undergrounded utilities.

In these neighborhoods, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who created the underground-utilities task force, said he would rather see trees than telephone poles. Also, Dufty said there are “a lot of the beautiful vistas” on the west side of The City “clogged up with these wires.”

The benefits of undergrounding not only improve an area’s aesthetics, but also ensure power outages do not occur when there are high winds, McKenna said.

Statewide, residents pay a fee on their utilities bill that contributes to the cost of undergrounding projects throughout California. “Less than 1 percent of the typical bill goes toward undergrounding projects,” said Brian Swanson, spokesman with PG&E.

Based on a complicated formula, the California Public Utilities Commission allots money collected though utilities bills for cities to underground utilities. San Francisco has used up its share of the undergrounding funds, McKenna said, adding that San Francisco would not see any money from the state to underground utilities again until 2017.

The city of San Diego uses a similar tax to the one San Francisco is considering, McKenna said, which generates millions of dollars a year.

For past undergrounding projects, local property owners had to pay between $1,500 and $2,000 to reconfigure their control panel to hook up with the undergrounded utilities. McKenna said it’s unclear at this point whether a utilities tax would render such payments unnecessary in the future.

The survey is at http://www.sfgov.org/uutf.

jsabatini@examiner.comBay Area NewsGovernment & PoliticsLocalPolitics

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