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Mayor renews water rate debate

Verner to offer new plan; council has set 2012 fees

The long summer debate over water rates in Spokane apparently will extend into the fall.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner this week promised to float a new proposal on water rates even though the City Council already adopted fees for 2012 that Verner declined to veto.

The council’s plan may not raise enough revenue, Verner wrote in a letter explaining her decision not to sign the council water rate ordinance approved this month. Despite the lack of her signature, the law goes into effect on Jan. 1 unless the council votes for something different before then.

“As the council intended, the disproportionate increase for high-volume consumers will drastically reduce those consumers’ water usage, with a resulting significant effect on water business revenues,” Verner wrote.

The mayor has been hit hard from all sides on water rates this summer, and her opponent in the November election, David Condon, made water fees a central part of his campaign just as summer utility bills arrive in the mail.

Verner’s plan for water rates was rejected unanimously over the summer. One group of council members agreed with Verner that an increase was needed to maintain the water system, but they said her plan burdened lower-income users. Other council members said the increase was simply too much during an economic downtown.

There are two main water fees for residential water customers: a flat base rate paid by all customers and a consumption fee based on how much a customer uses.

Verner’s proposal would have increased consumption rates by 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.

Last month, the council voted 4-3 to adopt a 16 percent increase on consumption rates and a base rate increase of 25 cents a month, about 2 percent. Supporters of that proposal argued that while it would raise a similar amount of money as Verner’s plan, it would put less burden on low-income families because the higher rates would go to people who use a lot of water.

“I have disagreed with where the council has gone on water rates. I think it has created confusion,” Verner said. At a mayoral debate on Thursday, Condon criticized her decision to allow the law to go into effect even though she disagreed with it.

“Then I would ask the mayor, why did she not veto it? She had two opportunities to veto it, she could have vetoed the rate structure last year and she could have vetoed the 16 percent increase across all that structure just a couple weeks ago,” Condon said.

A veto, Verner said, would have resulted in no increase next year because she can’t guarantee she’ll find enough votes for a new plan. The council’s plan is preferable to depleting water department reserves further, she said.

“Depleted reserves will make it very problematic to respond to emergencies such as breaks in the city’s antiquated water system,” Verner wrote in a letter explaining her decision not to sign the ordinance.

In May 2010, the council approved a new rate structure with the intent of lowering rates for people who use less and increasing rates for those who use more. It was not meant to generate more revenue – in fact, revenue has fallen under the rates. Verner signed that proposal into law, but she fought the council late last year when they declined to implement her request for a water rate increase on top of the structure change. Council members argued they didn’t want to confuse the public with a rate increase on top of a restructuring.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Verner likely will introduce a plan before the end of the year that will be different from what the administration originally proposed.

Councilman Richard Rush, who led the effort to pass the new ordinance, said the issue has been politicized during campaign season.

“They’re trying to gin up anger rather than engage in constructive policy decision-making,” he said.



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