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Bob Zalewski, meter reader foreman for the city of Spokane Water Department, plugs his handset into a house meter during his rounds last month.  Zalewski reads most meters by holding the reader handset to a plug or outlet, which sends the information to his handheld computer.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Bob Zalewski, meter reader foreman for the city of Spokane Water Department, plugs his handset into a house meter during his rounds last month. Zalewski reads most meters by holding the reader handset to a plug or outlet, which sends the information to his handheld computer. (Jesse Tinsley)

Lushest lawns will require more green

Council members say conservation drove decision to change city’s water rate formula

Most Spokane water users will see their water bills drop this year, thanks to residential rate changes designed to encourage water conservation and help the poor.

The city estimates that at least 60 percent of the city’s 58,000 customers will pay less for water service in 2011 because of the change. But customers who soak their lawns should beware – their bills likely will go up, and some will rise significantly.

City water customers use an average of 24,000 gallons of water every two months.

Most customers who use 32,537 gallons or less during a two-month billing cycle will pay less. Customers who use more will pay more, and because of a quirk in the new formula so will customers who use around 8,000 gallons.

The City Council approved the new rate formula in May, but it became a major highlight in the council’s debate last month when it finalized the 2011 city budget and utility rates.

“It’s a sincere and very transparent effort to put in a conservation rate structure and a rate structure that makes it easier for some of our lowest-volume, lowest-income users,” Councilman Jon Snyder said at a council briefing last month.

But Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin argues that the structure penalizes people who want to “maintain their lifestyle choices.”

“I’m not into social engineering people into conserving their water,” McLaughlin said. “If we had a water shortage we would have a whole other conversation to be had.”

Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council, a Spokane-based nonprofit organization promoting conservation, said that even though Spokane’s aquifer hasn’t fallen, the levels in the Spokane River have decreased during summers over the past century. 

Experts say the aquifer and river are connected and pumping from the aquifer lowers the amount of water in the river. Less in the river hurts fish populations and makes it harder to reach pollution standards, said Petersen, who supports the new rate formula.

“Everyone should be accountable for the water they use, and the dollar is a good way to account for that,” Petersen said.

He added that pumping less water would also decrease the city’s energy usage.

City administrators crafted the rate so that income from water bills remains about the same. But they acknowledge that the formula could change behavior and force the city to make changes later.

“With this new graduated rate structure, we don’t know what revenue is going to be for 2011,” council President Joe Shogan said at a meeting last month. “It may come in and we are using so much less water that the whole rate structure that we plan on is out the window.”

In December, the council rejected Mayor Mary Verner’s request to top the new rates with an across-the-board 3.75 percent hike. Most council members who rejected the increase said they didn’t want to confuse water users. To make up for lost utility taxes, they increased sewage rates more than Verner proposed.

Verner accused the council of abandoning a study that recommended rate levels needed to pay for several years’ worth of utility upgrades. Many of those projects will replace aging infrastructure or are required by regulators to improve pollution control.

The council’s rate decisions for water and sewage were “not tied back to any financial rationale or operational rationale for the utilities,” Verner said. “Personally, I don’t ever want to be in this position ever again, so I’m going to ask the council to adopt the rates at the mid-year point.”

Officials say finalizing rates before approving the budget will help prevent the council from being motivated by utility taxes when setting rates.

Most council members acknowledged that keeping water rates lower this year means prices likely will spike higher in future years. But they said the new formula wouldn’t help people conserve water unless they could see the difference between their 2010 and 2011 bills – without a rate boost.

Snyder said rejecting the proposed rate increase was about giving “the citizens a chance to see the progressive rate structure unadulterated.”

Last month the council reversed a decision made in May that would have based wastewater rates partially on how much water a customer uses in winter. City officials said that while winter usage is a decent indicator for how much wastewater a customer discharges into the sewers, it’s still highly inaccurate. The council agreed to maintain flat residential sewage fees. The council also voted to reduce rates paid by city water customers located outside city limits from 200 percent to 150 percent of what’s paid by Spokane residents.

Utilities Director Dave Mandyke said that for high users, the city could not justify a doubling of rates on top of the new formula.

“With the rate restructuring, compound that by 200 percent. That’s a big number outside the city,” Mandyke told the council. “I realize that those folks don’t vote, but they phone.”


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