The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Water, sewer rates going up December 1


November 24, 2016

The Cathlamet town council reinforced on Monday its intention to raise rates for customers of its water and sewer utilities.

Council members voted to give final approval to an ordinance that will increase rates effective December 1. Customers will see the increases on their January bills. Water rates will increase 10 percent, and sewer rates will increase 20 percent.

--Basic water rates for a 5/8" line will be $34.95 per month in town and $51.27 outside the city limits.

--Sewer rates within town corporate limits will be $96 per month and $111.60 outside city limits.

Council members say the increases are needed because current rates aren't covering the utilities' operational expenses.

They also say the increases won't solve the utilities' financial needs. Council members will continue to study rates and finances and may adjust rates in 2017.

The increases didn't sit well with some customers.

"I'm a retired Vietnam veteran," said Cathlamet resident Michael Berndt. "There's a lot of retirees within this city. And we all know there's no big industry here. So what are you going to do? Keep taxing us people that are on a fixed income and want to retire? It's up to our city and county officials to come up with new revenues.

"There's a lot of people that can't afford this kind of increase to have a drink of water and use their toilet."

Dave Mosteller focused on the basic water charge, which gives all customers a basic quantity and then adds a surcharge for use over the limit.

"Why am I, a bachelor living alone, paying the same as a family of nine," he asked.

"Thank you for your comments," Mayor Dale Jacobson said. "They have been heard."

Richard Erickson from Rivermile 38 Brewery and former president of the Wahkiakum Chamber of Commerce, offered advice on how to address the issue.

First, the utilities need more customers to spread the costs around. The town and county need to take steps to encourage development so they can expand the system. They can finance expansion by selling bonds, using some reserves, and by keeping debt low.

Erickson further suggested the town sell unused assets to reduce system debt and to hire a town manager with utility experience to manage the system and go after grant funding.

The town has let several opportunities to expand the system slip by letting businesses and developments near its sewer mains go to self-contained septic systems instead of connecting to the lines, he said.

"It is not fair to expect volunteer town council members to try to manage something this complicated," he said. "It is the lack of experience and leadership which has brought us to this point.

"If you have a cut, you can add a Band-Aid and take care of it yourself, but if you have a major wound, you need to go get professional help, and the town has a big wound and needs professional help," Erickson said.

Council members have been studying rates for the past month, including two special workshop meetings on rates. They've had reports from two consultants who agree that the systems can't be sustained with current rates.

Town Attorney Heidi Heywood outlined requirements of state law: The Revised Code of Washington "requires the town to charge a high enough rate to cover the full cost of producing, distributing and billing for water."

"No rate shall be charged that is less than the cost of the water and service to thc class of customers served," the RCW says.

"This means that the town should not utilize current expense funds to pay for water system expenses," Heywood commented. "The rates charged must fully cover all system costs by customer class."

However, Heywood said, "the sewer rate statute does not specifically require that rates fully cover the cost of providing sewer services. Accordingly, it is legally permissible to use current expense funds to help pay the cost of sewer services."

And at a Nov. 3 workshop meeting, county health department environmental specialist Justin Hartman said that the health department has the authority to require failing septic systems to connect to a sewer system.

Finally, the council accepted a bid from C&C Logging to log two units of town timber. The town should gain about $400,000 in revenue, some of which could be used to support the sewer fund.

The council will continue considering rate issues. They agreed to have another workshop meeting after the Thanksgiving holiday, but no date was set when the council met Monday evening.


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