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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane ponders higher rates

Sewer-bill hike would help pay for cleaner river

Spokane’s sewer rate would spike nearly $6 a month next year under a proposal under consideration by the City Council.

The plan, which amounts to a 13.5 percent increase, is not a surprise. City leaders have warned for years that state- and federally required projects to improve sewage treatment and stop the dumping of raw sewage into the Spokane River by the end of 2017 would force the city to greatly increase rates and borrow millions of dollars.

Cost of the projects, a small portion of which are complete, is estimated around $650 million. To prevent even greater increases in rates, the city plans to borrow about $440 million of the cost starting next year. Doing so, officials say, will allow them to spread the cost over two decades.

Residential customers would see their bills rise from $43.74 a month this year to $49.64 in 2012. The council this year only will consider rates for 2012, but administration officials predict that by the time the projects are finished in 2017, monthly bills will rise to $73.46 a month.

“We can’t get around the fact that we have to deal with requirements of the state and the federal government,” said City Council President Joe Shogan. “These are estimated expenses and we have to adjust our rates to accommodate that.”

Some council members say the rates are too high to impose on citizens, especially during an economic downturn.

“We have to push back at the state and federal level at these mandates,” said Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin.

City Councilman Steve Corker called the increases “unrealistic.”

“The state has to slow down these unfunded mandates,” he said. “I don’t know how we can impose this burden on our citizens at this time.”

That’s a different message than the one Corker gave in 2009, when he voted for a 15 percent sewer increase.

Responding to arguments that the state and federal government should subsidize the city for the improvements, Corker said cleaning up the river is primarily a local issue.

“To beg this responsibility is to beg a fundamental responsibility that we have as elected officials,” he said during a council debate in 2009.

That year, the council got the results of a utility study that recommended large sewer rate increases through 2013 to pay for the state requirements. The council has largely followed the advice of that study when setting the rates for 2010 and this year.

After raising sewer rates by an average of 2.2 percent a year from 1999 through 2009, sewage rates were increased by 15 percent in 2010 and 16.9 percent this year.

About a decade ago, the city agreed to a wastewater discharge permit with the state Department of Ecology that promised to substantially improve treatment of wastewater in large part to remove more phosphorus, which causes large algae blooms that harm fish populations in Lake Spokane.

The city also agreed to significantly cut the amount of raw sewage dumped into the Spokane River. 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 sewage is piped directly to the river without treatment.

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

Mayor Mary Verner said the city risks lawsuits if it does not pursue the projects that it promised to complete.

“You reach a point where you have to pay the piper because your utility rates in the past have not been set in the past on the long-term financial interests of the utilities,” she said last week.