Last summer’s heat from heavy water users over increased rates has yielded temporary relief. Spokane Mayor David Condon is rescinding the new rate structure and returning the city to the structure in place in 2010, with a slight bump in the base rate and an inflation adjustment.
The change is a nod to political reality. Heavy users felt they were getting soaked with little warning. The community was not prepared for the rather dramatic consumption-based increases. The outcry even has proponents rethinking the matter.
From the outset, the plan was to implement the new rates, then reassess them. The mayor has done so, and now he’s in the process of gauging long-term infrastructure needs and possible financing strategies.
Gone in the short term will be the big bump in summer water bills for heavy users, but the long-term needs of the city will remain. Condon’s plan will result in the city taking a $2 million revenue hit, even as officials acknowledge the need for more money to address expensive maintenance projects and infrastructure upgrades. One of the reasons the city raised rates so dramatically last year was because it had declined to do so in five of the previous eight years. Compared with some other Northwest cities, the rates that sparked outrage were still low.
Condon has called for an internal audit of the water department to try to pick up efficiencies. Another key will be whether the city can hold the line on labor costs within the department. Under the current contract, pay freezes are in place for the next three years.
Nonetheless, the needs are so great that it would appear that either rate increases or bonding – or, perhaps, a combination of the two – are going to be needed.
Incurring debt poses its own challenges, because the city already plans to borrow about $300 million for sewer improvements. Plus, the work from the 10-year, $110 million street bond comes to an end in 2014 (retiring that debt will take another decade). The city is expected to ask citizens for another street bond.
Whatever the financing, the city needs to step up its efforts to educate the public. When the rates were changed last year many residents were incredulous. Why conserve when we have an abundant water supply?
The need for conservation is very real. The benefits are worth pursuing.
For one thing, the interplay between the Spokane River and the aquifer is still poorly understood. When heavy use draws down the aquifer, river flows also decline. A slower river is a sicker river, and remedies for that carry significant costs. In addition, long-term climate change projections suggest the entire Columbia Basin will face water shortages from shrinking snowpacks.
The mayor is to be commended for quickly jumping on the water rate issue, especially as summer looms. The city needed this breather. But as officials look internally for solutions, they must also mount a sustained public campaign to convey the plain truth about the coming wave of challenges.
We can’t afford another retreat.