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Sewer rates should stand pat

Wed., Oct. 5, 2011, midnight

Recession plays part in county projections

A new report on Spokane County sewer charges may give ratepayers a sigh of relief.

A consultant’s study shows no increase in adopted rates is necessary and small reductions are possible.

The study outlines three scenarios that would allow next year’s adopted residential rate of $46.83 to be reduced to $45.04 or $43.79.

This year’s rate is $45.04.

Under all of the scenarios, rates would rise in subsequent years – to a range of $45.29 to $47.29 in 2014 – but not as much as under currently adopted projections that rise to $50.45. So far, rates have been formally set only through next year.

The sluggish economy accounts for some of the downward movement in the new projections from those in a 2009 study.

Capital needs are down along with demand for service. Also, construction of the county’s new sewage treatment plant is ahead of schedule and under budget, County Utilities Director Bruce Rawls said.

The good news comes with an exception for Spokane Valley residents. They face a $1.10 monthly surcharge to make up for about $500,000 in “aquifer protection area” tax receipts that city officials diverted from county sewer revenue within Spokane Valley.

The city government exercised its right to use some of the money for stormwater projects.

Rawls told commissioners Tuesday that the Spokane Valley surcharge is needed to maintain equity with other sewer customers.

Still, Rawls said, “It’s a happy conclusion. We have some really good decisions to make.”

Whatever commissioners do, he said, there won’t be “rate shock.”

If they choose, commissioners may reduce the currently adopted 2012 rate increase and two-year-old projections for longer-term rate increases could be scaled back.

Commissioner Mark Richard suggested granting rate relief, but Commissioner Todd Mielke counseled caution because of uncertainties about cost increases at the city of Spokane treatment plant. Commissioner Al French was absent.

Even after the county’s new wastewater plant goes into operation later this year, much of the county’s effluent will continue to be processed at the city plant. Charges for that service will rise in coming years because of major upgrades to meet new environmental standards, but officials don’t yet know the cost.

Mielke also was concerned about maintaining sufficient reserves for unexpected problems or opportunities – such as providing service to a large commercial development that could strengthen the local economy. He called for more information on how rates would affect reserves.

Tentatively, a public hearing on the possible rate changes is planned for Nov. 8 at 5:30 p.m.

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