City councilors ponder water rate proposals

Sean C. Morgan

City staff members have proposed increases for all of the city’s water customers.

Staff presented their recommendations to the City Council at its March 10 meeting.

At the low end, those using 300 cubic feet per month or less, water bills would increase from $19.99 to $21.70 later this year. The city is proposing no changes in sewer, which were adjusted last year, and storm water rates. At 300 cubic feet or less, total monthly bills increase from $61.68 to $63.57, an overall 3-percent increase.

The majority of residential customers, 1,426 accounts, who use 400 cubic feet or less, will see their total bills for 400 cubic feet of water increase from $80.89 to $83.63 per month, an overall increase of 3.4 percent.

“Average” residents, are those who use 600 cubic feet per month, an amount pulled higher than the majority customers by residents who use large amounts of water. For average users among that group, total bills will increase from $118.95 to $123.75 per month, an overall increase of 4 percent.

In commercial use, the majority of customers, 114 accounts, use 200 cubic feet per month or less. At 200 cubic feet, total bills increase from $99.86 to $103.57 per month, and at 100 cubic feet, total bills increase from $80.86 to $83.57.

The average commercial customer uses 1,400 cubic feet per month. At that level, total bills increase from $327.86 to $343.57 per month.

The proposed rates include an increase in the base charge, from $19.99 to $21.70 and an increase to the commodity charge, from $9.25 to $10.28 per 100 cubic feet of use.

For residents, the commodity charge is applied for each 100 cubic feet more than 300 cubic feet and adding the base charge. For example, under the proposed rate increase, at 400 cubic feet of use, the commodity charge for 100 cubic feet, $10.28, is added to the base charge, $21.70, to find a total monthly water charge of $31.98 for water. That is combined with sewer usage and a $1 charge for storm drainage.

Residents who use 300 cubic feet or less pay only the base charge. Commercial customers pay the commodity charge for all water usage.

Among projects, the city will need to replace a backwash pump, considered to the top priority for replacement; a variable flow deviceland replacement of a 2-inch water main on 9th Avenue for a total of $820,000, said Finance Director Brandon Neish. It will need $2.1 million in operations and maintenance and $300,000 to set aside for capital reserves, used to pay for emergency projects, for a total of $3.22 million in expenses for 2020-21.

Neish said the city will have some $250,000 in budget carryover, $207,000 from the sale of property on 9th Avenue and $275,000 in water capital funds to use for projects next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Those resources, plus the current rate, provide $3.032 million, leaving the city to find $188,000 in rate increases for 2020-21, Neish said.

The City Council discussed the proposal during the March 10 meeting.

Councilors discussed reducing the rate increase by using $93,500 in funds set aside from the water fund to move Public Works depending on what happens north of Public Works on old mill property off 24th Avenue. Four Public Works divisions are setting aside $187,000 each this year and next to pay for the possible move.

They also discussed decreasing the amount they set aside for emergency capital projects.

“Given the state of our delivery system, I wouldn’t advise it,” said City Manager Ray Towry, noting that the city will need money in the case of an expensive emergency.

No Drought and the Sweet Home School District last year objected to large rate increases. The School District saw a 45-percent increase in its bills last year.

This proposed increase would increase No Drought’s bill by $281 for the year to about $3,000, according to Neish. The district’s baseball field on Long Street would see an increase at the baseball field of about $2,700 to about $30,000 and at the community field south of the high school of about $5,800 to $62,500.

Neish said the the community field had a leak last year, and the city helped repair it. He expects the usage there to change.

“Nobody likes to raise rates,” Towry said. “We don’t enjoy bringing them to you.”

But staff is asking the council to raise them, he said.

“I don’t like raising rates, but I recognize that we have very few choices,” said Councilor Diane Gerson. After a decrease in total bills last year for about 71 percent of customers, she noted that her bill after this increase will still be lower than it was the previous year. “We’re not asking to raise a whole lot of money.”

“I agree,” Trask said. “We can’t kick the can down the road any more. I can’t see us putting this off. We’ve got to keep our infrastructure up and working.”

“I think we should move forward with it now till we get some public input, because it’s going to come,” said Councilor James Goble.

In the past, “we just didn’t raise it like we should,” said Mayor Greg Mahler.

Towry noted that following the recession, the second-worst in history, the city was struggling.

“It was that the council was doing the best it could to make sure residents could put food on the table,” Towry said. Unfortunately, that means the city wasn’t investing in its infrastructure, and now it’s playing catch-up, and this will allow the city to protect the integrity of the water system and treatment plant.

The council will consider and decide whether to approve the rate increase at a future council meeting. Staff is likely to recommend the new rates take effect on July 1, the beginning of fiscal 2020-21.

Present at the meeting were Cortney Nash, Mahler, Gerson, Goble and Trask. Absent were Susan Coleman and Lisa Gourley.

In other business, the council:

– Approved updates to the city’s personnel policies governing the eligibility of former city staff for rehire, including a provision that makes ineligible an employee who did not provide at least two weeks notice of their intent to leave the city.

Approved an application for a state grant for planning assistance to implement House Bill 2001, which allows duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters and townhouses in single-family residential zones and HB 2003, which requires the city to adopt a housing production strategy.

– Held the first reading of an ordinance that will govern special events on city property. The council may consider approving the ordinance following a second and third reading at upcoming meetings.

– Held the second reading of an ordinance to rezone property east of 18th Avenue, west of 22nd Avenue and north of Tamarack Street from residential industrial transition to medium-density residential and property west of 53rd Avenue, north of Highway 20 and east of Wiley Creek from planned recreation commercial to low-density residential.

– Held the third reading and approved updates to several ordinances, primarily removing fees from ordinances, allowing the council to set fees by resolution, a much shorter process, and to match state law.