WOODLAND — The Woodland City Council is considering raising water rates in a city where residents are already upset about high water bills.
Officials say fixing a leaking city reservoir needs to be addressed immediately, but the multimillion-dollar project is currently not budgeted for 2023. Council was scheduled to review the budget at Monday night’s meeting and consider when to raise water rates to help cover expenses.
The city needs to come up with millions of more dollars in possible revenue by the Dec. 31 budget cutoff.
But council members are wary of raising rates for people already complaining about high water bills. People at council meetings have complained about their high water bills since the city changed to a third-party biller called Minol.
At last week’s council workshop, members unofficially decided to delay water rates again.
At that meeting, councilwoman Melissa Doughty said she feels her water bills are high, and that residents often complain to her about their high water bills too.
“All these projects, I know they have to get done… but we have so many people in town that are literally coming in tears saying … ‘I moved here or I’ve lived here my whole life, and I feel like I gotta sell my house and leave’,” said Doughty.
At the same workshop, Woodland Public Works Director Tracy Coleman said roughly 12 months of delays in water rates have limited expected revenue and now there is less money to cover the city’s needed capital water projects.
Woodland has delayed water rates, first approved in 2020, twice. Council delayed water rates that were to increase in November 2021, until this August. In October, council agreed to delay water rates set to increase in November, to February.
At the Dec. 12 workshop, council tentatively agreed to delay that February water increase to May and sewer increase to November 2023. Council has to vote on the additional delays at an official council meeting to make it official.
Coleman said at the workshop the Washington State Department of Health is requiring the city to start fixing its leaking reservoir in 2023, and the project could cost between $3 and $5 million.
“You have to do, you absolutely have to do the repair of reservoir number two,” Coleman said on Dec. 12, “and this is not in the budget that’s been approved.”
According to Coleman, the reservoir leaks 10.5 million gallons of water annually. She said if the reservoir isn’t fixed, water usage might be limited.
Coleman said another water project — restoring water filters — can be delayed in 2023 but would create “worse water production.”
Another needed water project includes fixing 18 water pipes lined with asbestos on West Scott Avenue, and another project includes a biosolid tank.
At the Dec. 5 council meeting, Mayor Will Finn told the council one reason some residents have seen higher water bills is due to incorrect information the city sent the billing company Minol. He said some people were billed too much, and some didn’t get billed at all.
He said the city lost information on how the city billed its residents when an employee departed in August. He said Minol is “following our process” and that they’re “just going with what we gave them.”
At the Dec. 12 workshop, councilmembers placed the blame of today’s current water system structure on past administrations.
“I didn’t do this, you didn’t do this,” said Councilwoman DeAnna Holland, gesturing toward Doughty.
Looking for revenue sources outside of increasing water rates, Holland asked if there were any assets the city could sell off, and city staff rattled off some properties.
Coleman said the council in August 2020 was presented with covering water and sewer rates with a tiered system or a flat rate. The city hired consulting firm FCS Group to conduct a survey, which showed Woodland needed to collect more water fees due to the needed water projects.
The first utility rate increase occurred in February 2021, and the council implemented the tiered system simultaneously, according to Coleman.
At the Dec. 5 council meeting, members discussed whether a flat fee would be more affordable for residents than the current tiered rate.
Coleman said that even if Woodland paid for another survey for around $30,000 and changed the rate system based on the survey, “that doesn’t mean that your rates are going to go down.”