City Light CEO: 'Utility is being run as cost-efficiently as possible'

SEATTLE -- Jorge Carrasco wants you to look on the bright side of things.

The chief executive officer of Seattle City Light, which brings electricity to 408,000 customers, says the utility is in much better shape than when he joined a decade ago, with the highest credit rating of any utility in the Pacific Northwest, and financial reserves of $110 million - the highest it has ever seen.

And he's offering to answer questions about that other financial news that made headlines last week.

"Most cities don't own a $1.2 billion enterprise," Carrasco said. "We are the equivalent of a very large business that happens to be owned by the public. In order to attract the kind of expertise you need to run the enterprise, you have to be competitive in pay and in benefits."

Last week, the Seattle City Council

approved a pay raise

of as much as $120,000 a year for Carrasco. His annual salary could top $360,000, although a utility spokesman expected it to be closer to $305,000.

Some protested at the council meeting. The pay raise would make Carrasco the highest-paid employee in the city.

Carrasco said he's only had a single pay raise since joining Seattle City Light in 2004, and that his salary is competitive with other people in similar positions.

"If we had made regular adjustments to the salary band, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Carrasco said.

The head of Snohomish County PUD made about $356,000 in 2013, while Tacoma Public Utilities' chief made about $319,000, according to spokesmen for both utilities.

"We wanted to assure our customers that this utility is being run as cost-efficiently as possible," Carrasco said, citing investments in clean energy, plans to invest in smart meters, and more.

The utility also made headlines this week for

paying $17,500 to Philadelphia-based

to enhance the 'online reputation' of the utility and Carrasco. Documents show the company was paid taxpayer money to manipulate story placement on search engines and to spin stories on internet sites like the Huffington Post.

"This was entirely about the utility and the work of the utility," Carrasco said. "It was never our intention to make me the vehicle for addressing the issue of search results."

When asked if the contract was a misstep, Carrasco said the utility wouldn't do it again. Seattle City Light has asked for a refund for the $17,500 it paid.

"It was a mistake only in terms of execution. In terms of intent and in terms of purpose, I think it was a very legitimate reason for signing the agreement," Carrasco said. "We wanted to use this service as a way to communicate with customers on the web."

"There was some negative content to us that was old, that was concerning to us because it wasn't current and it wasn't communicating the messages we think our customers should know about the utility today," Carrasco added.

When asked about his biggest message to customers, Carrasco underscored high ratings for customer service, and an estimated $18 million in savings projected for customers in 2015, among other things.

"It is an important message for our customers to know that we are trying to do everything we can to control costs and to improve service," Carrasco added. "Seattle City Light is a gem. We are very fortunate to have ownership of a utility that serves a little less than a million people."