City too Poor for Power Pennies or Discrimination?

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Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 5:00 am  //  Guest writer

Publisher note:  Guest writer Barbara Perry brings to our notice a public need in Bellingham. During this Christmas and holiday season, we might reflect on how we as a community still come up short in enabling public facilities to benefit those in need. 

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The Issue:  Power outlets in public areas are often turned off.

The Basics:  First, let’s start with some basics: Puget Sound Energy power specialist Lev (800-562-1482) said the cost per kilowatt hour for 120 watt outlets varies for different equipment. Power scooters, he estimated, may cost about 10 cents an hour, while cell phones cost about a penny.

The Story:  As a disabled person, I really appreciate beautiful rides in areas prepared for walkers and bikers.  My scooter ride gives me a sense of freedom that I otherwise miss. As scooter batteries are expensive, I try to make them last as long as possible. I do not always know when the battery will die, so I charge frequently. But when I travel distances and up hills, it is difficult to know just how much battery life is available. Lately, I am afraid to travel very far because there are few outlets to use for recharge.

One day, while riding on my disability scooter, it ran out of power.  I had just ridden up Taylor Street bridge on my way home from Boulevard Park.  Seeing a nearby outlet, I plugged into it.  It was next to the public restroom at the top of the Taylor Street bridge.  I waited for twenty minutes, thinking I was charging my scooter, but eventually realized the outlet did not work.  There was no sign indicating such.

A worker came by and informed me the outlet had been turned off because homeless people used it too frequently for ridiculous things like blowing up tents, and thus the power bill was too high.  As someone who realizes many homeless people are veterans and/or mentally and economically challenged, I was concerned by this reasoning.  I am fortunate to have my earned Social Security which allows me enough income for a home plus basic living needs. (I emphasize the word “earned” as the most recent Washington food stamp form lists SS as unearned income, but it is definitely earned.)

Charging a battery costs a minor amount of money, and many people need electricity for cell phones, picnic outings, and medical equipment. Even a homeless person with electrical needs should be respected.  It is estimated that as many as 350,000 homeless people in the U.S. are war veterans. It is especially sad that people who need electricity while using our city parks are thought of as undeserving of assistance.

Discriminating against the Homeless?

Because of my concern about supposedly homeless people’s ridiculous, wasteful needs, I sent City Parks Director James King, an email. He responded in a more politically polite manner than the worker I talked with, writing:

"It is true that power outlets in rental park pavilions and shelters are turned on only during paid reservations.  This has been department practice for several years.  I understand that prior to making this department-wide practice, we had issues with citizens (homeless and otherwise) using park shelter and pavilion electricity for activities such as charging cell phones, operating hot plates and other cooking devices and powering inflatable bounce houses.  We cannot say how much electricity was used for these activities because of the way that the various outlets, lights and other electrical utilities are metered.  For example, the specific outlet that you encountered is on a meter for the restroom building as a whole, as well as the lights along Taylor Dock."

I thanked him for his response but wanted more feedback so enquired with other people and agencies.

Who Pays Costs?

Some people said it didn’t really matter because libraries allow people to plug in, so it is not really an issue.  But why should a library pay and not the park system? 

Businesses and libraries that allow me to plug in do not worry about this minimal cost.  Is this more of an issue of condemning and thus getting rid of homeless people?  I am not homeless and get sympathy for being disabled, so I ask myself, is this not a subtle discrimination issue and is it fair to the homeless?  Or maybe it’s a way to make people rent a covered park shelter for $21 to $24 an hour. 

Those rents help the park budget, thus helping fund the $111,000 salary for the director, as well as various employees.  I am not suggesting I think the director’s salary is too much.  Especially when I read Ralph Nader,  “ … big corporate bosses … make $11,000 to $20,000 per hour…their average pay was up another 6 percent in 2011 along with record profits for their companies.” (Ralph Nader, Common Dreams, June 8, 2012, “Don’t 30 Million Workers Deserve 1968 Wages?”)
I question the income discrepancy and how we in Whatcom County can stop the discrepancy locally. Why aren’t our parks more giving to the needy or even just average citizens? Why can’t someone who has not rented a park space plug into an outlet ? Not everyone can afford $21 an hour.  The website "Median Household Income Estimates by County" lists the average 2012 Whatcom income as $51, 268  ( ) Of course, that is the average income, not the lowest.  So if public parks are for everyone, why can’t we supply a few cents for electrical needs?

If the parks department can afford lights for walkers, why should they be concerned about the amount of electricity used by the disabled and homeless? And even if their reasoning is valid, why couldn’t the city provide outlets that are metered like our parking meters? At least people, disabled or otherwise, would not feel stranded. We have food stamps; why can’t we have power stamps? Or better yet, why can’t we have solar panels for lights and power outlets?

Seattle Perspectives

There was an article and a letter in the Seattle paper, Real Change, “Parks to Homeless: Plug in Somewhere Else” by Amy Row, August 8, 2012 and August 22, 2012.  And a letter by George Robertson responded with, “Like It, Share It.” Certainly, Bellingham does not have the same problem or number of homeless people as Seattle, but we are neighbors and have similar issues to deal with.

In “Plug in Somewhere Else,” Amy Row writes: 

"Parks isn’t the only agency cracking down on access to its outlets. Last month, the Seattle Times reported that Seattle Center covered electrical outlets in the restaurant area of the Armory because homeless people who plugged in their laptops there were monopolizing tables meant for dining.

"Seattle Center spokesperson Deborah Daoust said Center management has received a few comments from the public since the issue was in the news. Daoust said there are still outlets unlocked and open for use in other parts of the building.  She said Seattle Center management is exploring the idea of installing a power charging station, with an emphasis on supplying power to those who need it for medical devices."

Living and Dying Issue

Oh, right, it is not just disability issues, it is a medical needs issue. Do we want to cause someone’s death because we don’t want to give away a few cents of electricity for medical needs?

George Robertson, a Seattle reader, aptly responded: “Seattle Parks has over the years accumulated a group of employees with the wrong attitude about their jobs.  It is time to weed them out.  Parks are for all of us and turning off things that are popular with various segments of the public is exactly the opposite of what a public parks department should be doing.”

How Tax Money is Spent

The average 2012 Whatcom income was $51, 268.  Interestingly, the day I discovered this, Common Dreams ( had an article that included the following:

If you make $50,000 a year, you pay:

$   247.75 for defense
$       3.98 for FEMA
$     22.88 for unemployment insurance
$     36.82 for food stamps
$       3.96 for welfare
$     42.78 for retirement and disability to government workers (civilian and military)
$   235.81 for Medicare
$4,000.00 in corporate subsidies

So, who is worried about a few cents for supplying electricity to homeless people?

Possible Solution

Mr. King indicates there is a public solution: Call or email the Bellingham City Park Department and request that power outlets be available to the public; or email:; or phone (360) 778-7000.  Or talk with your city council representative. Mr. King needs feedback.  I also suggest adding that solar outlets are a great idea, too.

As a disabled person, I am thankful for how many people are considerate of my difficulties. Many people and businesses allow me to tap into power outlets to recharge.  Many people want to be helpful but do not know what help is best.  So I emphasize again, I would love people to call the parks department to request a change in their policy. 

I treasure the freedom my scooter allows me to travel about town on my own with only the help of some batteries. But I do need minimal power and the guarantee that it is available. Please call for simple power availability.

Dick Conoboy  //  Sun, Dec 29, 2013, 1:59 pm

Dear Barbara,

You have raised some important issues in your article not the least of which is our attitudes toward the handicapped and the homeless.  Moreover, often we do not even realize the effects our rules and regulations that may work against the needs of certain members of our community. 

I have taken the liberty of sending a copy of your piece to the mayor and ask that the topic be placed on the agenda of her Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) on which I am a representative from the Samish Neighborhood. In addition, a copy of my agenda request has gone to all the representative of MNAC for background in anticipation of the topic being raised at our next meeting.

Tip Johnson  //  Sun, Dec 29, 2013, 6:04 pm

You need to upgrade to an electric car, then they will bend over backwards to let you plug in for free.  But don’t feel discriminated against.  Director King has already signaled that his department will not pander to the low-to-moderate income.  He started that off by attacking community gardens.  Linville apparently supports Kings effort to run off the riff raff, and you can see she’s not afraid to give a big bonus to folks like the Port or Costco.  Bottom line?  If you are in need, don’t count on this administration to help.

Barbara Perry  //  Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 5:41 am

Thank you Dick.  Hope the results are fruitful.

Thanks Tip. It is difficult to have such lack of faith, but important to make people see, so I hope you keep writing too.

Dick Conoboy  //  Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 8:29 am

Two days ago the mayor replied to my request for this topic to be discussed at an MNAC meeting.  She wrote: “Thanks for the suggestion.  We’ll get info together.”  Will keep everyone posted.

Tip Johnson  //  Thu, Jan 02, 2014, 11:59 pm

I’m taking a wild swing here, but I looked up some electric wheelchair batteries and 90 amp hours seems pretty common.  Multiply by the 12 volts and you get about one kilowatt hour worth of capacity.  Figure the charger is 50% efficient (still guessing) and we could be talking a whopping $0.18 of power - if they charged the battery full, which would take longer than anyone wants to sit around.

This is clearly too much for the city to be spending on disabled senior mobility. I see these scooters blasting frivolously all around town.  Just do the math.  How many of them are there? Citywide, if only 5 or 6 of them hit up parks outlets for a full charge, it could cost the city an entire dollar.  What if they did it every day?  We can’t tolerate that kind of waste. 

But wait…you can buy a US made coin operated timer for under $500.  Of course you’d have to hire someone to install it and send someone around to collect the money.  Someone would need to count and account for it, with proper safeguards to make sure the no one was dropping a few coins at Wood’s for a coffee on their way home.

That might not seem more efficient, but there’s a proper way to do things, you know.  It would be simpler if disabled oldsters just stayed home and saved us all the bother.  Or they could at least quit mooching and carry their own auxillary gas generators.

Barbara Perry  //  Fri, Jan 03, 2014, 7:15 pm

Thanks Tip.  You did a more thorough study of the power used and like usual knew the right questions and how to find the correct answers.  No wonder you are always getting into trouble.  I liked your humor/ facetiousness also.  You are right that maybe disabled people should just stay home.  Many of them feel that way.  Thankfully I take an alternative med that is somewhat of an anti-depressant, so I keep writing and fighting. not as strongly as you though. Someday, who knows, maybe I will get all, or some of, the detail down.  Barbara

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