Washougal water rate structure set

Phased rollout includes increases smaller than previously planned

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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After enduring more than a year of debate, public discussion and fine-tuning, Washougal residents have clarity on how much their water utility bills will cost in the coming years.

Washougal City Council this week approved an ordinance that will enact a multi-year, phased rollout of utility rate changes.

Tweaking the city's rates for water, sewer and storm water has been a point of interest since last year, when the city reminded ratepayers that some customers' bills would increase by as much as 21 percent in 2013, part of a five-year series of increases initially approved in 2010.

After receiving push-back from residents, the city worked to lower the proposed rates, first by using $500,000 from its general fund balance to pay down the increases, then by hiring an outside consulting company, FCS Group, to perform a rate study.

From the city's end, the increases are essential to pay for a series of costly improvements to its wastewater treatment facility. The improvements will bring the aging facility in step with Washington State Department of Ecology regulations.

"The reality was, we didn't have a plan or rates in place that would sustain what we had to do to the system," Mayor Sean Guard said. "We were already out of compliance."

Washougal got an additional boost earlier in the year when the Department of Ecology OK'd a deal with city to postpone some of the wastewater plant improvements, allowing the city to spread its rate increases across several more years. That's allowed the city to reduce the year-over-year increases in the coming years.

The council's ordinance would affect utility bills for 2014 through 2018.

What that means for base-rate water users is they'll see an increase to their bimonthly utility bills, but not by as much as previously planned. Bills will increase from $183.12 to $195.40 next year for base-rate water users. Households that use less than the city's base-rate will see reductions to their bills.

For the next five years, water rates will increase by 3 percent. Sewer rates won't increase for the next two years, but will increase by 2 percent after that.

While the rate increases are lower than they could have been, they're still high, said Councilman Brent Boger.

"We're running five or six times the rate of inflation," he said. "Maybe we should put some reserve money into it."

Ultimately, he and the rest of council approved the rates. Even with his concerns about the rate increases outpacing inflation, Boger called them a good fix.

The city touts the new rates as being more equitable for homes that don't use a lot of water and says they will benefit conservation efforts. The city sets a minimum level of water use for which it charges customers, which will be nine units next year, or 6,732 gallons every two months. That amount will be cut in half over the next five years, which is intended to lower rates for households that use less water and to give other customers an incentive to use less.

"Our goal is to be selling less water," Guard said. "Conservation efforts are good for everyone."

New facility planned

The second phase of Washougal's wastewater treatment plant could begin next year.

On Nov. 8, the city filed an application to increase capacity at the plant and build new facilities. The State Environmental Policy Act requires a review of the project take place.

The city will use a portion of a $16 million bond approved in 2011 to pay for some of the project. The city may also see an additional $1 million grant from the state. That money was granted to make improvements to the city's storm water system, but the city wants to use it on its wastewater system. That money will have to be approved in the Legislature's supplemental budget, City Administrator David Scott said.

The city also is looking to secure a low-interest loans, which would make the city's next loan smaller, he said.