Will local governmental bodies get together to create a plan to extend Cathlamet's water and sewer systems to areas not yet connected?
They may do so, but probably not at least until after the November 6 election.
The Wahkiakum Chamber of Commerce has raised the issue by asking the town council and board of county commissioners to hold a "sewer summit" to discuss what can be done to expand town sewer and water systems and thereby spread operating costs over a larger group of ratepayers.
The Chamber's board of directors recently generated a position paper stating that Chamber members feel the "costs associated with water and sewer utilities are regressive and counterproductive to business start-up and growth in the Town of Cathlamet service area."
"We feel that the impending rate increases will exacerbate this critical issue," the paper says.
"Increasing the cash flow to the utility in this way is the only viable long term solution to the financial health of the utility," the paper says. "Reducing barriers to growth is a necessary step for new businesses to prosper, employ and benefit the community as a whole."
The town council briefly discussed the request for a summit at its September 17 meeting and agreed to participate.
Chamber members brought the issue to the board of commissioners on Tuesday, and the discussion became very lively.
Chamber President Richard Erickson said the Chamber is interested in seeing what can be done to get more customers for the water and sewer systems or how rate increases can be implemented gently.
There are people on fixed incomes who are maxed out on what they can pay for utilities, and there are businesses and tenants who are struggling to pay the current rates, Erickson said.
"Could we set a date," he asked.
Commissioners said they would participate, but they weren't sure of what their role should be. The town operates the sewer and water systems, not the county. The county cooperated with the town to extend a sewer main up SR 4 to Boege Road seven years ago, but, because of the recession, no one has connected to it yet.
"Our involvement is participatory," said Commissioner Lisa Marsyla. "We have no influence on the town, but I think we need to be a participant."
"The Chamber is looking for leadership," Erickson replied.
Commissioner Dan Cothren said he took offense to the position paper, which said, "The Mayor has already started down this path (reducing or eliminating system development fees), and the County Commissioners need to cooperate fully with him."
The county started the process by extending the line to serve more customers, Cothren said. Futher, at the last discussion with Mayor George Wehrfritz at a commission meeting, the board asked Wehrfritz to set up a meeting with Rosedale residents who might connect to the new line and also to provide some information about the formation and financing of local improvement districts (LIDs). That hasn't been done, he said.
"The whole thing is, we're waiting for him," Cothren said.
Marsyla commented that there two issues--development of the Boege Road line and increasing the number of connections overall to the sewer and water systems.
"We need to look at all the costs," she said.
"Thank you for the invite," said Commissioner Blair Brady. "Just let us know the date."
The board heard a couple public comments.
Jerry Hogan noted he is one of the residents targeted for a sewer connection, and he has a good septic system. Why should he connect and begin paying fees he doesn't pay now, he asked.
David Nelson, a Cathlamet real estate agent, Chamber board member, and landlord, said tenants and businesses are already having trouble now with fees, so how will they be able to pay when they increase as outlined in town ordinances?
"Something has to happen, or this town is going to die," he said.
Wehrfritz was out of the area on a business trip and was informed of the meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
He said he had expected the Chamber to schedule the summit meeting.
He also said he had followed through on the previous discussion with the board of commissioners. He had referred commissioners to a utility engineer who had provided information for the town and the commission, but he hadn't tried to schedule a community meeting on a possible LID for Boege Road and Rosedale Heights because he felt the commission and the town had a disagreement over the status of the county's financing of the Boege Road line.
Commissioners are calling the financing a loan, he said, but it is technically not a loan.
"It is not registered as a loan on the town's books or with the county auditor," he said.
"We had technical conversations, and it kept coming back to the pipe. I felt it was a waste of time to litigate something that happened seven years ago.
"If we don't agree on the current reality, we won't be able to proceed," he said.
Wehrfritz said he'd welcome a meeting on the issues, but he feels it should be an informal workshop with less than a quorum of the commission and council present, and because of the political nature of the issues, it should be after the general election.
The town would welcome new customers as a means of easing the rate increases necessary for covering expansion of the sewer system, Wehrfritz said. They town has already spread the increases out over several years to help people adjust.
(Editor's note: On Wednesday afternoon, Chamber President Erickson reported the workshop has been scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on October 16 in the commissioners meeting room. Here is his statement:
"After meeting with the Wahkiakum County Commissioners I was instructed to pick a date to hold our requested Sewer Summit and that they would send a representative. Also the Wahkiakum PUD said that they would like to be present at the proposed Sewer Summit.
"Please mark your calendars and meet with us in the County Courthouse 3rd floor BOCC meeting room on October 16, 2012 at 2:30 PM.
"Below is the Position Paper that was adopted by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber Board feels that we need to start a discussion on how to try to keep utility rates from escalating to the level that they will harm existing businesses, discourage new business, force citizens to move from the County or keep new citizens from moving into the county.
Wahkiakum Chamber President"
Cathlamet Sewer hook up fees and rates
It is the considered position of the Chamber of Commerce that the costs associated with water and sewer utilities are regressive and counterproductive to business start-up and growth in the Town of Cathlamet service area. We feel that the impending rate increases will exacerbate this already critical issue.
For this reason we are hopeful that candidates for County Commission and Town Council will understand and support the concept of reducing or eliminating system development fees, hook-up fees and any other barriers to new services. This will increase the number of rate-payers, thus reducing operating (monthly) cost to all. The Mayor has already started down this path, and the County Commissioners need to co-operate fully with him.
Increasing the cash flow to the utility in this way is the only viable long term solution to the financial health of the utility. Reducing barriers to growth is a necessary step for new businesses to prosper, employ and benefit the community as a whole.
The attrition we are witnessing in lost businesses is a harbinger of a ghost town to come. We need to take very active and aggressive measures to reverse it.
The Chamber has never endorsed any candidate and has always remained neutral in political races local, state or national. However the Chamber has and will write and endorse concepts and programs that will benefit our local businesses. We should endorse and encourage all entities to get behind a summit that will work on making sure that our local businesses are not regulated out of business.