The average bill for indoor residential water in Spokane will increase about 4 percent next year after weeks of debate among city leaders – but the rate will spike much higher for big water users.
Under the final version approved Monday night in a 4-3 vote, the council opted to increase the base fee paid by all residential water users no matter how much they use by 25 cents a month – about 2 percent. Water consumption fees will increase by 16 percent.
The new plan replaces a version the council rejected last month that would have raised a similar amount of money but would have shifted the burden onto base rates. Councilwoman Amber Waldref said the goal was to prevent large increases on low- and middle-income families.
“We know how difficult it is for people who are unemployed or on fixed incomes,” she said.
City officials say water rates need to be increased to pay for major improvements to pipes and other water infrastructure. 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.
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she generally supports proposed construction upgrades to the system, but said much of the need for rate increases is driven by recent union contracts that include several annual 5 percent pay increases for most Water Department workers. She said the average Spokane water employee earns more than $50,000 a year.
“Out in the private sector, we’re having to face reality and we’re having to get our costs under control,” she said.
McLaughlin also expressed concern that the increases coupled with the city’s rate structure that has higher per-gallon prices for heavy usage penalizes large families.
But Councilman Jon Snyder said it’s unlikely any family’s indoor water usage will force families into the higher-priced categories of users.
“The Brady Bunch taking baths twice a day is not going to take anybody up to the top tier,” Snyder said.
The close vote means Mayor Mary Verner will have the option to veto the proposal. But that appears unlikely given her support of last month’s rejected plan.
Mayoral candidate David Condon was in the audience during the council debate. He said he opposes the increase and questioned recent pay increases and the cost of the city’s water conservation program.
“This is the No. 1 issue people are talking about,” he said.