Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Feb. 8, 2023

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Washougal residents alarmed over high water bills plan protest Tuesday

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published:

Recent water bills have caused alarm for some Washougal residents, who are planning a protest Tuesday.

The demonstration is scheduled for 2 p.m. outside of the Washougal Public Works operations center.

Several residents have complained of dramatic increases to their bimonthly water bills. City officials, on the other hand, have pointed to the normal increase in water usage during summer months, an uptick in use due to more people staying home and long-planned rate increases based on infrastructure maintenance needs.

Some city residents recently took to social media to speak at length about their water bills.

“I’m just really confused,” Ramona Sinhart said. “They’re just killing us with their water bills now.”

Janice McCall is one of two residents in her Washougal condominium. The property includes a 100-square-foot lawn and flowers that need daily maintenance.

McCall said her typical water bill is between $200 and $300, though it’s sometimes more during the summer months. Her bill for July and August was $748.34. She said that when she contacted the city about the increase, an employee came to her home to check for leaks. None were found.

“I thought when I opened my water bill that I hadn’t paid the previous bill,” McCall said. “We were shocked at this kind of a bill for water.”

Washougal Public Works Director Trevor Evers said that situations such as McCall’s are outliers.

Evers said residents sometimes have questions about their water bills after the summer months, when usage typically hits its peak. He added that the COVID-19 outbreak, which has required people to stay home for longer periods of time, has amplified the increase this year.

“We know that our customers are having some enhanced consumption during the public health crisis,” Evers said. “People are home more, for sure, overall.”

Evers said “quite a few” customers are contacting the city about their bills.

“We’re just working with customers who didn’t expect it to go up as much as they saw,” he said.

Sinhart said she spoke to a city employee Monday morning who offered a similar answer. She said that, while her bill increased about $60 in the most recent cycle, some of her neighbors’ water bills exceeded their rent payments.

“How many more times a day is someone’s toilets being flushed? Are they using that much more water to cause these bills to go from $400 to $800?” Sinhart questioned. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Utility rates

The Washougal City Council in 2018 passed utility rates for 2019 through 2023 that include annual 3 percent increases. But the city has not adopted any new increases this year, Evers said.

The city facilitates utility services for more than 16,500 residents.

State law mandates that fees for services such as water, sewer and stormwater drainage can only be spent to maintain the utility system. That doesn’t include a portion of the bill, a 10 percent utility tax, which provides revenue used for other government services.

Since 2013, the city has gradually been phasing out its current rate system, which assesses a flat fee based on an allowance of water in each billing cycle. The five-year rate system adopted by the city council in 2018 decreases the allowance and flat fee each year.

After that, water bills will come from a base fee combined with charges based on consumption.

In formulating the rate changes, the city contracted with Oregon-based financial consultant FCS Group.

The new system promotes water conservation, is more equitable (because not every household uses the same amount of water) and is being used increasingly by utility providers, Evers said.

“That’s kind of an industry best practice, if you will,” he said.

The average single-family, bimonthly utility bill in 2019 was $214.34, according to the city. This year, rates were expected to average $227.69.

The average water rate in 2019 was $35.51. Rates for others cities in the county fell between $23 and $27, while Seattle had a $60 rate.

Infrastructure maintenance is the most significant driver of costs for utility providers, Evers said. In Washougal, several large-scale improvements to wastewater treatment plants have taken place in the past two decades and will continue due to growth in the city and requirements from the state Department of Ecology.

Mayor Molly Coston said that when the council passed the rates through 2023, it did so with the aim of keeping increases as low as possible.

“These utilities require a great deal of infrastructure and maintenance,” Coston said. “But that is all built into the structure that people are paying now.”

The city has deferred $9.6 million in water utility capital improvement projects and cut a manager position in the public works department. The decisions were made to mitigate the impacts of rising water rates, Evers said.

But those who plan to protest today aren’t convinced.

“Their excuses don’t hold water,” Sinhart said. 

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Columbian county government and small cities reporter