Local news

Sewer rates may go up

TUESDAY, NOV. 3, 2009

Verner proposes hefty 15 percent increase to help meet looming costs

Flushing your toilet in the city of Spokane may cost $5 a month more in 2010.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner on Monday presented her 2010 budget to the City Council. It includes a 15 percent rate increase for city sewage service.

Verner based the price on a study commissioned by the city that estimates Spokane will need about $750 million in the next two decades to meet environmental regulations and to expand wastewater capacity.

The same study says the city will need an additional 15 percent rate increase in 2011 and a 13.5 percent increase in 2012. Even with those spikes, the engineering firm that completed the report, HDR Inc., which is based in Nebraska, suggests that Spokane still will have to borrow money to complete the projects.

The mayor’s other proposed utility increases are more modest: 3.5 percent for water and 1.5 percent for trash.

If the City Council agrees to the sewer rate increase – it has until the end of the year to decide – a homeowner in Spokane will pay $37.44 a month for sewer service. That’s still less than what homeowners with Spokane County, Tacoma, Seattle or Vancouver sewer service pay.

The average monthly city utility bill, including garbage, trash and sewer, would increase from $77.36 to $83.25.

Verner acknowledged that the sewer increase “sounds like a whopping number,” but she said officials have not been realistic in the past about the future costs.

“It appears to be, and it is, a pretty significant increase,” Verner said. “It’s kind of time to pay the piper.”

The largest chunk of money needed for sewage projects, about $300 million, would prevent raw sewage from spilling into the Spokane River, said Wastewater Director Dale Arnold. Much of the South Hill still has street drains that flow directly into sanitary sewers. During rain, the system often can’t handle all the flow, so some sewage goes directly to the river before reaching the treatment plant.

Much of the money to fix the problem will be used to build about 20 overflow tanks that will collect excess water during rain.

About $150 million of the $750 million is needed to pay for plant upgrades required by tougher regulations aimed at removing phosphorus from discharged water. Phosphorus has caused significant algae blooms in Lake Spokane, threatening fish populations. Plant upgrades also likely will significantly reduce other toxins from reaching the river.

Some City Council members blamed state and federal regulations for the rate increase.

“We don’t dream this stuff up. We are mandated by the state and the feds to do this. If you have problems with this, don’t call us,” Council President Joe Shogan said. Angry ratepayers should contact state or federal officials instead, he said.

But City Councilman Steve Corker said while the increase is hefty, future generations will gain a significant benefit.

“If we don’t take these steps right now, they’re going to pay a lot more in the future,” Corker said.He added: “So much could have been done earlier to make what we’re facing now not such a burden.”

While much of the cost is the result of expensive sewage projects, other factors also play a role. Last year, the City Council agreed with Verner’s decision to begin taxing sewer charges meant for future construction. That money wasn’t passed on to residents, meaning that $3.2 million annually in sewer fees that otherwise would be kept for sewage projects is diverted to pay for other city services, such as police and fire.

Also, after a sewer digester collapsed in 2004 – in an incident that killed a wastewater employee – the city decided to spend about $50 million in reserves for new digesters. That money otherwise might have been used to help solve the sewage overflow problem.

The city’s state permit for discharging sewage into the river requires that the city fix the sewage overflow problem by 2017.

One way to prevent the need to to borrow money to pay for upgrades would be to delay the deadline, Arnold said. The city likely will explore that possibility when its permit is considered for renewal at the end of the year.

“It does not mean that you’re intending to ignore the standards,” Arnold said.

But Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the Center for Justice’s Spokane River Keeper program, said federal water law doesn’t allow permits to be watered down. Spokane should have better prepared for the deadline, he said.

“They’ve known about this requirement for a long time,” Eichstaedt said.

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