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Spin Control

The politics of water rates

What might be the most curious thing about the current City Council debate on water rates is the timing.

Here the council is debating what may be the biggest political hot potato of the year even though ballots are sitting on kitchen tables ready to be marked in time for Tuesday's primary election.

If anyone questions the political ramifications of the rate boost proposals, consider this: Two mayoral candidates were in the audience Monday night: Mike Noder and David Condon. (Condon, by the way, said he has concerns about the proposed increase and would have voted against it.)

Council observers are used to politicians proposing a rate freeze in election years and more quietly asking for increases out of the election cycle. The chart showing percentage increases over the last decade clearly points to election-year hesitation on rates among mayors and councils.

But Mayor Mary Verner has gone ahead with steep proposed increases in water and sewer this year despite this being an election year. Not only that, the debates on the water and sewer rates were scheduled for this summer — in time to be considered by voters. Until last year, the council voted on utility rates along with the city budget in December.

So why the change?

Verner was angered by the council's decision last year to increase sewer rates by more than she had proposed to balance its decision to reject her administration's proposed water rate increase. She accused the council of playing with the rates out of concern for the utility taxes they generate for services like parks, police, fire and libraries. As a result, she and some council members opted to set utility rates for 2012 well before the council approves the budget to avoid setting utility rates to generate utility taxes.

And don't forget that as a candidate for mayor in 2007, Verner accused Mayor Dennis Hession of playing politics when he proposed rate freezes for 2008. Verner has said if former leaders hadn't balked at increases, she wouldn't be in the predicament of asking for boosts like the proposed 8 percent request for water.


With the debate on water rates guaranteed to last at least a couple more weeks, officials may start questioning the approval time table.

Councilman Steve Corker, who is running for City Council president, accused the council of a “rush to judgment” in approving the rates in August and noted that the budget won't be approved until the end of the year.

Councilman Jon Snyder responded that considering the rates now means they'll get the attention they deserve.

“Generally, we pass our water rates when people were on their Christmas vacation,” he said. “I'm puzzled by the characterization of a rush to judgment.”


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About this blog

Jim Camden is a veteran political reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Jonathan Brunt is an enterprise reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Kip Hill is a general assignments reporter for The Spokesman-Review.

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