Mason County PUD No. 1 was honored by AT&T and Government Technology for the District’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a national Special Districts Summit, held virtually on December 15th.  According to Government Technology’s website, the Special Districts Awards Program is designed to recognize innovation and leadership within special district agencies across the country. This year, the program was looking for notable examples of how special districts applied innovative technologies and leadership to response and recovery efforts as they relate to COVID-19. Hundreds of submissions were submitted from agencies across the United States. Mason PUD 1’s general manager, Kristin Masteller, was invited to be a panelist at GovTech’s virtual Special Districts West Coast Summit this past August, joining panelists from Orange County Transportation Authority in California and Pinellas County in Florida.

(Pictured L-R: PUD 1 commissioner Ron Gold, general manager Kristin Masteller, and commissioner Mike Sheetz. Not pictured commissioner Jack Janda.)

“I am very honored and proud that our small public agency out here on the Hood Canal was recognized alongside giant metropolitan districts like Orange County and New York Power Authority. It doesn’t seem now like the actions we took when the pandemic started were that innovative, but they were extraordinary at that time,” Masteller said. “We closed our doors to the public for the first time in 85 years. That’s a big deal, and although most other agencies have now taken the same precautions to protect their employees and customers, we were the first ones to do that in Mason County and it was scary to take that leap. We didn’t know how bad this pandemic would end up being and were wary of appearing like we were overreacting when we sent people home and split up our crews. It was absolutely the right thing to do though, putting the safety of people above operational norms, and we have reaped the benefits of it to-date with a healthy workforce and maintaining reliable utility services.”

The PUD’s pandemic response plan was developed in transition, as an offshoot of the existing emergency response plan. Ron Gold, president of the PUD 1 board of commissioners, said, “We knew we needed to keep our employees safe so they could continue to do their jobs and keep the power and water on, so the board approved a pandemic leave policy to allow people to stay home if they were exposed, and to also set up office staff to work from home.” Gold also noted that staff has put extra effort into keeping the public informed, as well as working to bring in grants and assistance funds to help customers who are struggling to pay their utility bills. “There are a lot of people that are struggling right now, and we are doing everything we can to keep their services on now and into 2021,” said Gold. As part of the PUD’s initial actions in March, the commission announced a suspension on disconnections and late fees, authorized the manager to allow long term payment plans, and postponed planned rate increases to help its customers who were impacted financially by the pandemic and statewide shutdown. The PUD also secured and disbursed over $57,000 in CARES Act funding to 148 customer accounts in Mason and south Jefferson Counties.

In addition to the actions taken to protect employees and customers, the District also forged relationships with the local business community for critical supplies like hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment, bleach and peroxide for water system testing, and general supplies like paper products. “Our employees and commissioners really deserve the bulk of recognition for this award because of how quick and flexible they were to react to what needed to be done,” said Masteller. “However, our community partners and customers also deserve credit because they have been integral in ensuring that our plan has been successful, and we can continue to operate. This award recognizes their efforts as well.”

Formed by AT&T and Government Technology, the Special Districts Program is the first program designed for special district leaders across the United States. Special districts, such as port authorities, utility districts, transits and park districts, make up the largest portion of government agencies in the United States.