Council works on budgets, considers changing sewer rates
October 7, 2021
In a meeting lasting three hours and 13 minutes on Monday, members of the Cathlamet Town Council started work on their 2022 budgets and began a process to revise rates for sewer service.
The council went through the preliminary budgets page by page, asking department heads to explain requests or changes in their budgets. Updated figures will be reviewed at their October 18 meeting.
The council closed the meeting with an examination of a consultant firm's study of sewer rates and how they could be adjusted to be fairer for small consumers while covering costs and maintaining reserves. Council members also broached the subject of making rates equal for customers inside and outside the town boundaries.
Librarian Carol Blix said pandemic response restrictions had reduced library usage this year and last. She said she hoped to use grant funding to purchase laptops and mobile hot spot equipment for patrons' use. Roughly half the library's patrons reside in Wahkiakum County, and she said she would approach the county board of commissioners to request a funding contribution.
The council had questions on the Emergency Medical Services and fire department budgets, but Chief Vernon Barton was absent; more discussion will occur at the next meeting.
The council spent considerable time discussing Public Works Department budgets with Superintendent David McNally and Clerk/Treasurer Sarah Clark.
Council Member Robert Stowe questioned proposed amounts for some expenditures for supplies and equipment, and Clark and McNally explained that they'd budgeted high so that if actual costs were higher than expected, adequate funds would be in the budget and not require budget amendments.
"We can't inflate costs for each department," Stowe commented.
Stowe questioned the value of the town's Six-year Street Improvement Plan and its list of projects when there is a lack of budgeting for street improvements. The town needs to pursue grants for improvements, he said.
Town Attorney Fred Johnson explained that the plan is required by the state in order for the town to be eligible for grants or other street and road funding.
While going over the Water Fund budget, McNally said he had listed a $500,000 project to build a booster station to improve flow in the Fern Hill area, and the high number drew council concern.
McNally said the station is needed because water pressure in that area is below standards. He said he had obtained estimates for the station and, "The numbers came back higher that I anticipated, about 10 times higher."
He said he would investigate further and have more precise number at the next meeting.
Council Member Bill Wainwright said firm numbers are required.
"We need to go into 2022 knowing that we have X dollars to spend and Y dollars in reserve," he said. "I'm not satisfired that the numbers you're giving us are the numbers we need to have.
"We need the same for the sewer fund."
In going over the General Fund budget, Clark said there are no new expenditures, just continuation of existing projects.
The council and staff will refine budget figures; final budget approval is planned for a December council meeting.
Sewer rate study
Council members came up with questions and requests for new information when they had their first look at a consultant's analysis of sewer rates.
The consultant modeled rates based on water meter size serving a property, with rates higher for services with larger meters. The rates also included an annual 2 percent increase to maintain revenues and reserves.
Council Member Laurel Waller asked Clark to ask the consultant to run a model based on one uniform meter size and also if the 2 percent increase didn't have to occur every year.
Council members also discussed equalizing rates for all customers; presently, customers outside the city limits pay higher rates.
Johnson said a lawsuit elsewhere in Washington is challenging the practice. Tiered rates are legal when they consider factors such as topography and distance, he said, but they could be considered arbitrary if a customer on one side of a street pays one rate and a customer on the other side of the street pays a higher rate just for being outside city limits.
Council members seemed open to equalizing the sewer rates for all customers.