The Spokane City Council tonight unanimously rejected a nearly 8 percent increase in water rates, but that doesn’t mean bills won’t rise next year.
A majority of the council appeared to favor raising revenue by increasing fees to boost water revenue by an amount equal to what was requested by city administrators, but those members apparently disagree on how best to do that. A rejection of Council President Joe Shogan’s request to delay a decision for a week to examine competing proposals doomed the water rate plan for the night.
“It means we go back to the drawing board and try to bring back something that will give us four votes,” said Utilities Director Dave Mandyke, referring to the minimum number of council members who must agree in order for proposals to pass.
City officials say water rates need to be increased to pay to replace and upgrade major infrastructure, some of which is well over a century old. They note that water rates were unchanged five out of the last eight years and that the water department’s reserve fund has dropped from around $40 million to about $9 million.
“We have to make our water rates affordable for our consumers and restore the financial stability of the water department,” said Mayor Mary Verner, in an interview before the debate.
Administrators proposed raising all residential rates 7.65 percent. The base rate paid by all residential customers would have increased by that percentage plus $1, which amounts to nearly a 20 percent increase. The plan would have increased the average water bill about $2.50 a month.
Before the council rejected the rate increase, it approved the city’s six-year water plan by a 4-3 vote. The plan estimates revenue as if the rate increase was approved. It also assumes similar or larger increases each of the next two years. Council members Nancy McLaughlin, Steve Corker and Bob Apple cast the no votes arguing that more cost savings were needed within the water department or more time was needed for review.
“The hard work has yet to be done and that's with some of our expense issues,” McLaughlin said.
Supporters of the plan noted that the council had debated water rates and the plan since June and that administrators already scrubbed some $30 million of projects from it and are keeping a dozen positions vacant.
“We’ve tried to pare this thing down as much as we can. Eventually we're going to get more North Perrys,” said Councilman Jon Snyder, referring a major water main break this year on North Perry Street. “The water will not deliver itself.”
Councilman Richard Rush argued that the administration’s rate increase plan would hurt low-income water customers and proposed a structure that would eliminate the extra $1 increase to the base rate and simply increase rates 10 percent. That would shift the increase to users of more water.
Shogan said that a vote on Rush’s plan should wait a week so the public could comment on it, but the council declined his request. Shogan, Corker, McLaughlin and Apple voted against Rush’s rate proposal, setting up the unanimous defeat of the administration’s rate plan.