Local news

Mayor wringing water rates

Summer bills would go down for most

Summer water bills for most city of Spokane water customers appear headed to a tumble.

But winter bills and costs for people who use the least water likely will increase a bit.

Spokane Mayor David Condon on Thursday unveiled his proposed water rate structure to replace the controversial rate plan approved by the Spokane City Council and Mayor Mary Verner for 2011.

“The residential customers will pay dramatically less for their water consumption so that we can keep Spokane green and so we can continue to make sure that our customers are provided a more predictable rate,” Condon said at a news conference Thursday in front of the city’s water conservation van, which was parked at City Hall.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has endorsed the plan, which will be considered by the council on April 23.

A monthly water bill for 5,000 gallons, about the average monthly winter bill or bill for customers who don’t water lawns, would increase by about 6 percent.

A bill for 27,000 gallons, the average amount used monthly in the summer, would fall by about 30 percent.

Heavier users would see even bigger bill reductions.

A customer who used 100,000 gallons in a month, for instance, would see their bill cut in half.

The new structure was based on reverting to the rates in place in 2010, adjusting for inflation and adding an extra dollar to the base rate.

Condon said his plan will generate about $2 million less in revenue.

While it’s possible that the lower rates will encourage more consumption and offset some of the revenue loss, Condon noted that water consumption was generally falling even before the City Council revamped the rates for 2011. Condon said the city won’t abandon conservation efforts.

“We continue to make those goals, and I believe that we can with a rate structure that’s more flat and isn’t overly graduated,” Condon said.

City officials changed the water rates for 2011 in a way that lowered costs for light water users and increased costs for those who used more. They said they wanted to help lower-income customers and encourage water conservation. But last summer, many used to watering their lawn were shocked by significantly higher bills. During his campaign last year, Condon promised to change the rates, and Stuckart, who originally supported the rate change, said the outcry had helped change his mind.

Water officials have worried openly in recent years about a lack of investment in the water system and a decline in reserves. They are particularly concerned about water lines installed in the 1940s when, as a result of World War II, mains were installed that were made with metal that is susceptible to bursts.

The mayor, however, said his plan will not cut infrastructure investment this year and that he plans to maintain future investment in the system.

Stuckart said he’s also confident that the water system would not suffer as a result of the lower rates.

“As we look at our infrastructure, we also have to look at affordability for our citizens,” Stuckart said.

Condon has asked the city’s internal auditor to review the water system to find ways to make up the loss of revenue from proposed rate cuts.

The auditor, Rick Romero, noted that cutting bills a total of $2 million doesn’t cut water revenue by that much because 20 percent of that amount would have been siphoned off for the city’s utility tax. The city may be aided in making up the loss by the contract with the city’s largest union, which represents water workers, that freezes pay in 2013, 2014 and 2015, he said. Romero also said he will examine if the city can cut maintenance costs by improving infrastructure, possibly with borrowed money. The city already plans to borrow money for sewer improvements, but has strived to keep the water department debt-free.

Councilman Jon Snyder, who supported the rate change for 2011, said he’s always been willing to reconsider after they had been effective for a year.

He said he’s open to bonding for infrastructure, but that doing so would require “a rigorous analysis before we jump into more debt.”

This summer, Condon said, the city will read water meters monthly, as opposed to the current bimonthly readings, in a trial program to prevent customers from having to deal with giant bills.

“If they need to make adjustments, they have more timely information to make adjustments,” Condon said.

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