Sewer rates in Spokane will jump almost $5 a month next year.
The Spokane City Council on Monday approved the new rates, which were proposed by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, in a 4-3 vote.
The rates are based on a city-commissioned study that recommends significant sewer-rate increases through 2013 to pay for $750 million in sewage plant upgrades to lower the city’s phosphorus emissions and to stop the release of raw sewage into the Spokane River. Projects also would increase the city’s capacity at its wastewater plant, which border Riverside State Park.
Sewer service will rise to $37.43 a month from $32.55. If future city councils agree with the study, sewer rates will rise to $55.45 in 2013.
Council members Nancy McLaughlin, Bob Apple and Al French opposed the increase.
“That is a whole heck of a lot of money,” McLaughlin said. “I struggle with how far we can bend and when we’re going to break the back of businesses.”
Other council members said the higher rate is needed to meet the city’s responsibility to ensure a clean river.
The ongoing rain in the past few days helped Councilman Richard Rush explain his support. He pointed to a city Web site that keeps track of overflow pipes that dump raw sewage into the river during rain. Sixteen of the city’s 27 overflow pipes released sewage into the river without any treatment Monday.
Much of Spokane’s south side has storm drains that are combined with sanitary sewers. During rain, they often become overwhelmed, and some sewage is diverted to overflow pipes. To fix that, the city is installing overflow tanks that would capture excess wastewater and slowly put it back into the sewage system as capacity allows.
“For folks that can afford to pay this, this is the price of having clean water,” said City Council President Joe Shogan, who was joined by Rush and council members Jon Snyder and Steve Corker in approving the rates.
But Marion Moos, who lives on South Hill, testified that the new rates will be a “financial burden” on the poor and seniors on fixed income. Average homeowners will pay $90.73 a month for city utilities, including sewer, water and trash services, in 2010. That’s up from $84.59.
Responding to arguments that the state and federal government should subsidize the city for the improvements, Corker said cleaning up the river is primarily a local issue. “To beg this responsibility is to beg a fundamental responsibility that we have as elected officials,” he said.
The council approved an amendment to the increase that requires a review of the rates by May 3. City administrators agreed to formulate a new rate structure to assist low-income people and encourage conservation of water.
All single-family residences pay the same rates. A new formula may examine water usage in the winter – when water is not used on lawns – to help determine how much customers use the sewers, said wastewater Director Dale Arnold.
Supporters noted that many other communities, including Spokane County, are experiencing similar increases to sewer service prices. Delaying action will only force the city to pay even more in the future, they argued.