Vancouver approves utility rate hikes

Average homeowner’s bill will rise by $3.46 a month

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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With an eye on keeping the city’s utility systems solvent and well-maintained, the Vancouver City Council unanimously approved increases to several utility rates Monday night.

The increases will bring the average homeowner’s total bill up $3.46 a month, from $80.54 to $84.

Water rates will rise 5 percent; surface water 2.1 percent; and solid waste 1.5 percent. In 2010, the city council approved a 6.5 percent increase in sewer rates for 2012, along with a 9 percent increase this year.

“I’m quite opposed to this thing, but not in its entirety — it is a matter of timing,” said Fruit Valley resident Lee McCallister, the lone person to speak against the increase at the public hearing. “A number of us, myself included, have been on a fixed income. (Utility rates keep) going up, and our wages do not keep going up correspondingly. Government keeps getting more and more spendy, and we have less and less spending money.”

But while city council members expressed reluctance to pass the increases, they said it was necessary to keep the aging infrastructure up to date. As a group, they’ve asked public works to only pass incremental rate increases and also to move to a pay-as-you-go system for new projects, taking on debt only when necessary.

“I lost my job this year, too,” Councilor Jeanne Harris said. “We need to not think in the moment, but think in the future …this community needs to keep itself in good condition.”

A study of Vancouver’s utility rate increases over the last 15 years show that with the exception of sewer rates, prices have increased gradually — most only going up about $5 a month or less.

Sewer costs began to climb starting in 2001, largely driven by the need to pay off bonds on $250 million spent on sewer infrastructure and facilities between 1990 and 2001. Of that, $182 million was for the west and east side treatment plants.

Future water rate increases will be necessary as Vancouver moves to update its west-side water facility, parts of which date to the 1930s. More surface water fees may also be on the horizon, as new state environmental regulations and improvements will mean higher costs may be passed to customers, staff members said.

By contrast, last week Clark Public Utilities raised its water rates about 14 percent.

Monday’s increases put the city on the path of being able to maintain and expand pipes and facilities, Public Works Director Brian Carlson said. Getting behind on maintenance work costs much more later when problems become severe, he said.

If the council did not approve those increases, “we’re passing on higher costs to future users,” Carlson told the city council.

Outgoing Councilor Pat Campbell, whose votes on the increases were his last in office, said he’s on Social Security and keeps an eye on inflation. But he stood behind the move to hike rates now.

“It is more expensive to run a shoddy system,” Campbell said. “We have an efficient system, we’ve had workshops on where we want to go.”

The 2012 increases factor in 2.1 percent for inflation; anything over that amount will help pay for capital projects, Carlson said. The city also tapped into a rate stabilization fund to lower the solid waste (garbage, recycling and yard debris) increase from the actual cost of 3 percent more to 1.5 percent, he said.

Rate increases will go into effect Jan. 1, except for the solid waste rates, which will go into effect on March 1.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall