Officials say funds needed for upgrades; critics point to raises
Fearing a dried-up account for the city’s water department, city officials next week will make a second attempt at increasing utility charges.
Water bills would climb by an average of $2.36 a month under a plan the Spokane City Council will consider Monday that would increase water consumption fees 9 percent. The base rate – paid by all water customers no matter how much water they use – would increase by that percentage, plus 50 cents.
Last month, the council unanimously rejected an administration proposal aimed at raising about the same amount of money, but more of the increase came from the base rates.
Mayor Mary Verner said last week that she hasn’t evaluated the latest proposal, which was submitted by Council President Joe Shogan.
“My bottom line is that I want the rates to be affordable and to generate sufficient revenue to keep the water department financially whole,” she said.
The council is divided in three camps. One group prefers to raise only the per-gallon rate to prevent placing too much burden on low and middle-income households. Another group prefers some of the increase to be placed on base rates paid by all water customers to give the water department a more reliable source of revenue. The last group opposes any increases. The likely outcome based on last month’s debate is a compromise between the first two groups.
City Councilman Richard Rush is pushing for raising only consumption fees. He said this week that he likes the new plan better, but still believes that base rates should remain flat.
Shogan argues for at least a partial increase in base rates.
“We’re still debating what’s fair for all involved,” Shogan said. “Irregardless of what’s consumed, we’ve still got infrastructure that’s got to be upgraded. Otherwise we’re going to have broken streets all over the place.”
City officials say water rates need to be increased to pay for major improvements to pipes and other water infrastructure, some of which is well over a century old. Water rates have been kept flat five out of the last eight years. Administrators say the water department’s reserve fund has dropped from around $40 million to about $9 million.
Water Director Frank Triplett said he’s delayed important construction and kept positions open to balance the budget. He noted that Spokane’s water staff numbers 160, about 100 less than Tacoma, which has a similar-sized water system.
“We have cut it down below what I think we need to maintain public health and public safety,” Triplett said.
Triplett said, for example, that each of the city’s nearly 7,000 fire hydrants should be inspected annually based on industry standards. But the city staff is big enough only to inspect each hydrant once every three years. The standard and city inspection schedule is the same for 18-inch valves, he said.
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she opposes any water rate increase because the need for new revenue is driven much more by rising city wages than by infrastructure upgrades.
“I’m having to stand for the majority of people in Spokane who work for small businesses,” McLaughlin said. “I’m not going to make them sacrifice any more for our city employees.”
Most water department workers are members of Local 270 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. Members received 5 percent raises all but one year from 2004 through 2009 (In 2006, their raise was 3 percent). Under the terms of a concession agreement the union signed with the city in 2009, members gave up half of their 2010 raise, which had been set at 5 percent. In exchange, the city agreed to 5 percent raises in 2011 and 2012 for members with four or more years of employment at the city.
Rush warned that pushing off water projects into the future could put the city’s water system in a similar condition as the city’s streets, which have a reputation for potholes and ruts.
“I don’t think anybody in the water department is getting rich,” he said. “These are working class, living-wage jobs.”
This year, the city adopted a new rate structure that cut rates for typical indoor usage while increasing rates for heavy water users.
Rush, who championed the change, said the goal is to make rates extremely affordable for indoor use and to encourage conservation.
Critics include mayoral candidate David Condon, who labels the new system a “misguided attempt to legislate behavior.”
City water customers use an average of 24,000 gallons of water every two months. Under the new structure, customers who use 32,537 gallons or less during a two-month billing cycle pay less than they did under last year’s rate structure.
Last month, the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, released a report criticizing Spokane’s conservation rate structure. It noted that the average use of water in Spokane households already had fallen before the rate structure was adopted.
“The City of Spokane’s monopoly water prices punish larger families even though they have reduced their rate of consumption,” the report says. The rate structure will “bring a windfall to city officials who seek to increase budgets and compensation for city employees, while raising the financial burden they impose on citizens.”
Conservation rates, however, haven’t brought a “windfall” to city coffers so far. When the council approved the change last year, the structure was designed to maintain overall revenue, not increase it.
In reality, however, bills overall have declined.
Triplett said revenue is down by about $1 million under the new structure. He attributes the fall to the slow economy, a rainy spring and early summer and the conservation rate structure.
The Washington Policy Center report recommends adopting flat rate structures such as Tacoma’s or Boise’s.
“Citizens in the City of Tacoma did not need a five-tiered scale to limit their consumption of water,” the report said.
Spokane’s water rates are relatively cheap compared to many other Northwest cities. Average water users in Spokane in the summer and winter would pay significantly more – in some cases more than 50 percent more – under Boise or Tacoma’s rate structure.
The think tank’s report also questions the need to adopt conservation rate structures because studies show that the aquifer isn’t dropping and that 40 percent of irrigation drops back into the aquifer.
Department of Ecology hydrologist John Covert said, however, that water use likely is affecting levels of the Spokane River, which is connected to the aquifer.
“It’s not the aquifer that’s in trouble, it’s the Spokane River,” he said.
Since measurements began in the 1890s, summer Spokane River flows have decreased in the river. Covert said the biggest factor besides rain and snow likely is the construction of Post Falls dam, and in the early 1940s, the decision to raise the level of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Pumping from the aquifer, however, appears to be a factor in recent years, he said. The nine lowest flows in the Spokane River near downtown Spokane have all occurred since 1970, and seven of them since 1990.
Studies have estimated that to account for future growth, the region will need an additional 32 billion gallons a year, an amount that could force major water battles between Idaho and Washington or major costs unless people better conserve water, Covert said.
“The system is stressed already,” he said.
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