Washougal to increase water rates 21% in 2013

Dozens voice objections at meeting; mayor says overhaul is needed

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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WASHOUGAL -- A plan to raise base-level water, sewer and stormwater rates by $37 next year has some Washougal residents gasping for air.

The city's rate increase in 2013 will be the third in a five-year plan to bump residential bills by around 120 percent, resulting in a $264 tab every two months for many households by 2015.

More than 70 people descended on council chambers Monday for a special evening meeting, many saying they simply couldn't afford the increases.

"I think it's ridiculous," Washougal resident Adam Ruth said. "I understand the cost of doing business. That's fine. But a 21 percent (one-year) increase doesn't make any sense."

Ruth moved to Washougal from Camas a year and a half ago and said he doesn't understand why the city hasn't done more to help people conserve water. He said he wished water rates would better reflect what households actually consumed.

Mayor Sean Guard said the city was working on ways to alleviate pain to people's pocketbooks. One possible solution would be revamping the city's one-size-fits-all base rate for water consumption.

The city currently charges a minimum rate for a fixed amount of water. If people use more than that fixed amount, they pay more. The opposite isn't true if households use less water, however.

In 2013, the amount of a bimonthly residential water, sewer and stormwater bill will jump from the current rate of $174 to $211.

Fielding complaints about rising rates are nothing new for Washougal. City council members approved five years of rate increases in 2010, saying at the time that they were necessary to pay for an overhaul of city's water and sewer system. The fixes are mandated by the Department of Ecology.

In a phone interview, Guard acknowledged the rate increases were high but said they were necessary to pay for system upgrades. He blamed previous administrations for not addressing the matter sooner, saying he wouldn't hazard a guess as to why they didn't make the rate increases.

Still, many of the residents who filled council chambers Monday said they were unaware of the issue before fliers began circulating around town, warning of the rate increases.

Janice Ellis, a Washougal resident since 1975, was responsible for distributing the fliers. She said she passed them out to raise awareness about the rate hike.

She can't afford to pay higher rates, she said.

"If I had a way of getting my house sold," Ellis said, "I'd move out of Washougal."

Ellis wasn't alone at Monday's standing-room-only meeting, where dozens of citizens peppered Guard with brusque questions and pointed criticism.

Vera Oser, a Washougal resident who attended the meeting, said her water bill would be bigger than her electricity and gas bills combined.

She said people could survive without electricity or gas.

"But I defy anyone to survive without water," she said.

Guard said he wasn't asking people to go without water.

"At these prices you are," Oser responded.

The city has discussed ways to lower costs.

In 2011, the council approved $16.1 million in sewer revenue bonds to pay for a new wastewater plant. The bond will expire in 20 years.

Another proposal on the table calls for the city to enter into a public-private partnership with a company to run the city's wastewater facility. First proposed over the summer, that plan has met with skepticism and criticism from residents.

Guard said he was not surprised by the turnout of the meeting.

"Everybody can do a little bit better with communication," Guard said in an interview. "But this is not something we kept secret."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.