As gardeners wait for the final frost and homeowners start mowing their lawns, the Spokane City Council is set to give them relief by putting an end to the city’s great water rate debate.
The end result, which is scheduled for a vote on Monday, likely will set the rates nearly as they were before debate began.
The controversy started quietly on the City Council in 2010 when the council’s Democratic-leaning wing lowered the cost on customers who used less and raised the cost on those who used more. They said it was about giving a break to the poor and encouraging folks to use less.
Critics of the plan called the plan “social engineering,” and administrators worried that customers would be on the verge of revolt when they opened their first summer bills. As they predicted, no one noticed the change the council made until more than a year after the vote, when customers with green lawns saw their first summer bill under the new system. Call takers at City Hall said the phones rang often and the voices they heard were not happy.
Mayor David Condon was in the midst of a mayoral campaign and already had positioned himself in opposition to the rate change, a stance that helped him topple then-Mayor Mary Verner. He announced his overhaul proposal early this month. That plan is what will be considered by the Spokane City Council and is likely to be approved.
“In the end we’ve created a rate structure that’s understandable, more affordable and predictable and it’s still conservation-based,” Condon said in a news conference early this month.
Under the rates in place last year almost all customers got a break when they weren’t using water outside, but it was a break that was barely noticeable – often about $1.50 a month. A study of 2011 Spokane summer water bills indicated that slightly more than half of customers paid less in the new rate structure even on summer bills than they would have under the 2010 rates.
But many of those who paid more paid a lot more, and since water consumption charges only appear on bills every other month, the changes were often eye-popping and sometimes more than $100.
There’s something for every council member in Condon’s new plan. The Democratic-leaning members like that it maintains a “conservation structure” – meaning that customers pay more per gallon the more they use. Republican-leaning members like that it cuts government fees.
Condon’s residential rate plan isn’t new. He returned the city to the 2010 rate plan, which already had a conservation-based approach, added a bit for inflation, and agreed to maintain more conservation concepts from the 2011 plan (which actually lower the bills for everyone) and added $1 to each monthly bill.
Spokane’s water is extremely cheap compared to other Northwest cities of its size. And for customers who don’t water much outside, the city’s rates are comparable to surrounding water districts. But city fees start to look expensive compared to adjacent districts the more a customer uses. That’s because some districts have the opposite approach to “conservation-based” structures; they charge less per gallon the more customers use. Others have consumption fees that are low or nonexistent.
Spokane’s aquifer is substantial and stable, but environmentalists say conservation measures are still needed and point to the generally declining level of the Spokane River in late summer. The river’s decline is a sign, scientists say, that pumping so much from the ground in the driest part of the year may have an effect on river levels. Some river advocates worry that the new rates will encourage customers to waste.
Although rates are pretty much headed back to what they were in 2010, there is one big group of winners from the two-year debate: city of Spokane water customers who live outside city limits.
The city’s water system serves a large area outside city limits. Customers beyond city borders generally have paid double what residents pay.
Before the rates for 2011 were set, city administrators stressed that these customers tend to have larger acreages and water more, setting them up for giant bills. They persuaded the City Council to lower those rates to 1 1/2 times normal rates.
Condon has decided not to jack them back up despite using the 2010 structure as the basis for his plan.
City customers who live outside city limits have long complained that they have no power in the rates since they can’t vote for the body that sets them.
Councilman Jon Snyder said the last two years of debate is a sign that the city should find a new way to set rates.
He’s proposing to create a utility commission, which would include ratepayers throughout the city’s service area, to de-politicize water rates and recommend a fair price that would keep the system in good working order.
“Right now we don’t have a good mechanism to consider all aspects of utility policy,” Snyder said.