Washougal water privatization a washout

City had hoped to defray plant-upgrade costs, decrease rates

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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WASHOUGAL — A plan that could have reduced Washougal's annual upsurge in sewer and water rates is off the table.

The city won't pursue plans to partially privatize its water department. Officials proposed the plan to help defer costs associated with infrastructure improvements mandated by federal and state authorities.

With a unanimous vote, city council members chose to ditch the plan at their Monday evening meeting.

"If we screw this up," city council member David Shoemaker said, "we don't have the resources to fix it."

Councilors had voiced skepticism at the draft plan, which showed savings of only a few dollars per billing cycle, or between 7 and 14.5 percent of an overall bill. On top of that, the city could be tied down to a 15 year contract with a company.

The city's privatization plans were never fully formed, but they called for an outside company to operate and maintain the city's new wastewater treatment plant.

The city thought the proposal could help defray the costs of making $15 million in plant upgrades, while decreasing sewer, water and stormwater rates in the process.

In 2013, Washougal's ratepayers will shell out an extra $37 every two months on their stormwater, water and sewer bills.

The bump is part of a five-year series of rate increases, which were approved by the city council in 2010.

In August, the city signed a $45,335 professional services agreement with Science Applications International Corporation, a Seattle-based consultant, to look into the plan. It was unclear how such an arrangement would affect the city's 29 public works employees.

When city staffers first presented councilors with a sketch proposal for partially privatizing the city's water department, the potential savings were presented as being much higher, said Councilor Brent Boger, who's endorsed a plan to cut utility taxes.

Sticker shock

Still, annual increases to the city's water system have many residents reeling from what they consider to be sticker shock.

"You're going to run every old person out of town," Washougal resident Gary Garland told councilors.

It's an opinion others have shared with councilors at a number of meetings, including a lively one at the end of December.

Starting this year, residents will pay $211.13 every two months on their base-level water, stormwater and sewer bills. That's compared with the $174.60 bimonthly rate residents paid in 2012.

By 2015, the city anticipates the bimonthly bills could be as much as $264.

With privatization plans scuttled, the city will investigate other ways to lower costs. The top option calls for the city to negotiate a pushed-back schedule with the Washington State Department of Ecology, which has mandated the city take steps to improve its wastewater system.

Under that tentative proposal, rates would increase, but not by as much as planned. Bimonthly bills would notch up to $198.61 throughout 2013. By 2015, they'd jump to $239.93.

City Administrator David Scott said the city sensed a strong desire from residents to focus on the city's capital improvement plan for the treatment plant.

He said he was confident the city would have a positive conversation with the Department of Ecology.

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