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Utility rate hikes on agenda

Sun., Sept. 25, 2011, midnight

Urban forestry fee may not take root

Of all the proposals to raise utility rates this year in Spokane, it’s the smallest one that may have the smallest chance of approval.

The Spokane City Council on Monday will consider three utility rate increases for 2012: a 13.5 percent increase for sewer service, a 5.5 percent increase for trash and the creation of a 25-cent monthly urban forestry fee that would be added to the existing stormwater fee, which otherwise would remain flat at $3.60 a month. The council already approved a boost to water rates.

The urban forestry fee originates from the Spokane Park Department, which is struggling to balance its budget at the same time administrators are asking it to absorb the full cost of the city’s urban forestry program.

Spokane Urban Forester Angel Spell said it’s not unusual for municipal sewer utilities to contribute to the cost of urban forestry programs because trees play an important role in limiting runoff.

A large tree, she said, can capture a couple thousand gallons of water during a storm. Much of that eventually trickles to the ground, but the tree slows the flow.

“Trees are another way to manage and treat stormwater on site,” Spell said. “It really flattens out peak flow.”

The fee would generate about $200,000 of the proposed $484,000 urban forestry budget for 2012.

The Spokane Park Board has endorsed the concept, but several City Council members say they need more data about how the fee would benefit stormwater systems.

“I’m not sure I’m there yet,” said Councilman Jon Snyder.

Snyder said he sees a need for the city to improve its urban forestry program, but how to provide it more resources “is an open question that probably will not be decided” on Monday.

Wastewater Management Director Dale Arnold said there likely would be a benefit to the city’s stormwater system by investing in the city’s trees, especially on the North Side. However, he said, the department doesn’t have any projects on tap involving trees. 

“We’re moving from a lot of what could be called gray infrastructure to green infrastructure,” he said.

The proposed 13.5 percent increase to sewage fees was first briefed to the City Council in July and wasn’t a surprise. For years, administrators have warned of the need to pay for two major, state-mandated sewer upgrades.

If approved, monthly sewer fees would increase from $43.74 a month to $49.64. 

Arnold said $4.67 of the extra $5.90 a month is needed to keep contaminants out of the Spokane River, with wastewater plant upgrades to remove more phosphorus from treated sewage and new giant tanks to keep raw sewage from overrunning the system during snowmelt and rain.

The city’s wastewater discharge permit requires the upgrades by the end of 2017.

Like many cities, a large portion of Spokane, mostly on the south side, has sewer lines that function as both sanitary and storm sewers. When it rains, the system often gets backed up and untreated sewage is piped directly to the river.

To solve that problem, the city is building a series of giant tanks to hold overflow until it can be sent to the treatment plant.

Next year, the city plans to build five more tanks that will keep an average of 5 million gallons of raw sewage a year out of the river, said Lars Hendron, Spokane’s principal wastewater engineer.

That will leave about 70 million gallons a year to catch with more tanks scheduled to be built through 2017.

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