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Council cuts water rates for big summertime users

In time for the growing season, the Spokane City Council on Monday lowered rates for higher users of water.

The summertime bills for most of the city’s 73,000 customers will likely decline. But most people will pay about a $1 more in winter months or whenever they don’t use much water outside.

The vote puts an end for now to a debate that erupted last summer as customers started receiving their summer bills and realized that the council a year earlier adopted a new rate structure that lowered rates for those who use less and increased rates for those who use more.

“I can’t tell you how many dead lawns I ran across last year,” said Councilman Mike Allen. “People were simply afraid to water their lawn because they weren’t sure what their water bill was going to be like.”

The vote was unanimous and included two members, Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref, who had voted in favor of the previous rate structure in 2010 and 2011. Councilman Steve Salvatori was absent.

Waldref said the 2010 vote to shift the structure was made to assist the poor as the city faces large construction costs to upgrade parts of its utility system. She said, however, that it became clear last year that many folks with low incomes water a lot.

“We’ve learned that maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do even though we had good intentions,” Waldref said.

She promised to work toward a different rate relief program for the less fortunate, perhaps modeled after one used by Avista.

About 15 people testified at the water rate hearing. Some said it was unfair to raise bills of those who don’t use much water. Under the new rates, a customer who uses about 5,000 gallons a month annually – about the average use of a customer who doesn’t water outside – will pay about $189 a year for water, up from $178 a year.

Other critics said it would encourage people to waste water.

“I know that living a luxurious lifestyle and even growing a large subsistence garden or even a community garden does not consume very much water,” said David Weber. “On the other hand, mismanaged lawns and mismanaged yards not only use a lot of water, they toxify it.”

But others praised the council for writing a proposal that allows folks to maintain their lifestyles while still giving them incentives to water responsibly.

“This proposal is clear,” said Neal Sealock, the former director of the Spokane International Airport, who said he was representing Indian Trail residents. “It’s well thought out. It was inclusive.”