Tom Fahey is so steamed about his company's water bill, he's fomenting revolution.
Fahey is vice president of human resources for Siltronic, a German semiconductor manufacturer that is the city's largest commercial water user. In the past year, the company paid $1.9 million to the Portland Water Bureau for 446 million gallons to wash its silicon wafers. Last year, Siltronic shuttered one of its two Northwest Industrial District factories and laid off 380 workers.
Fahey, who handles the company's local government relations and PR, says he's fed up with asking the Portland City Council to keep water rates flat. Siltronic is now backing a ballot initiative to wrest control of water and sewer rates from City Hall by creating an independently elected public water district to set utility rates.
As the campaign prepares to gather signatures, Fahey sat down with WW to talk about how the new district could cut costs, and why Mayor Charlie Hales' meeting with big water ratepayers in June didn't stanch the uprising.
WW: Why is the cost of water so important to Siltronic?
Tom Fahey: We're the largest high-tech company in the city
limits. We make the raw silicon wafers that a company like Intel uses
for their chips. We sell to all top-25 semiconductor companies in the
world, so we compete on price. Water is such a big issue for us because
we spend $3 million a year on water and sewer costs. All of these
high-tech products in the room—particularly mobile devices—everyone
expects those products to be better than they were last year and to be
cheaper than they were last year. Well, how does that happen? The only
way that happens is companies like us putting more value in the product
every year at less cost.
How far can you really bring down rates with an independent board?
On the sewer side, a lot of that is locked in because of the Big Pipe project debt. The biggest problem we have with the water side of it is, they're still taking on those large projects—like the covering of the reservoirs, for example. Those are the ones we hope to be able to get before this independent body for adequate review.
The reservoir capping is a $279 million project, and they're halfway through. Would you want them to just stop it?
Well, yes. You can already hear the city saying—I've heard them say it—"Oh, the bulldozers are already rolling, we have so much in the ground already." That's always the justification. That's why they try to get these projects started as soon as they can.
Where in the country has something like a public water district worked?
Eugene. You don't have to look very far away. The Eugene Water & Electric Board is a great example.
When Mayor Charlie Hales first met with you in June, what was his reaction to your ballot initiative?
If I had to label it with one word, I would say "intimidation." In my opinion, he was literally out of control. I've never seen him that angry. I've never seen him or heard him be that loud. Yelling. I've never heard him use words that he used—that were inappropriate for any politician, never mind a large-city mayor in the United States.
Calling this "a hostile takeover," we thought that was inappropriate. There's a couple others. I hesitate to tell you because theyâre juicy quotes. He called us âpolitical terrorists.â
And when the mayor called you political terrorists, did anyone respond to that?
I tried to interrupt him. But he wasn't going to be interrupted. He was on a roll. When we started to make a point he would cut us off and not allow us to fully explain ourselves. And we ended up leaving the meeting before it was over.
You walked out? How long did the meeting last before you left?
We left at about one hour, and there was probably another 30 minutes or so.
How much talking did Nick Fish do?
When the mayor needed to take a breath and let the color drain from his face a little, Nick would speak up.
What was your take on Fish?
I have a pet description for him. It's not complimentary, so I've not shared it with the press before, but I refer to him as "Jelly" Fish because he's spineless and he blows with the wind. He'll say anything to get re-elected.
You understand that some consumers are concerned that this new public body, while feeling democratic, is being put up by some very large companies with a lot at stake. What would you say to people who say that?
My caution to all ratepayers is to look at the issue. Don't look at who is putting it up. If this initiative hadn't come up, would we be sitting here talking about this today? I think we're already winning based on the fact that we're finally getting a dialogue on these issues that have been undercover for years. They haven't seen the light of day, except for these public hearings that very few people attend. We're finally getting these issues out in the open.