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Water, sewer rate increases imminent

New funding source becomes available for wastewater treatment plant improvements

I may be missing something, but this is Christmas," said Sunnyside City Councilman Bruce Ricks this past Monday night. Ricks' elation centered on City Engineer Jim Bridges revealing a new funding source through the Department of Ecology that could provide the city with all of the $12 million needed to make improvements to the wastewater treatment facility.

But the public doesn't need to be so quick to open any holiday gifts, as in the same breath, the Sunnyside City Council sort of took the role of Scrooge in agreeing to pass a new water and sewer rate increase on to local residents.

This is the third water and sewer rate increase in less than a year the Council has passed. The Council approved in August 2003 a 6 percent rate increase for water and another 5.5 percent increase for sewer services. At the beginning of December, the Council implemented another rate increase of 5.8 percent for water and 6 percent for sewer services. Prior to the increases by Council last year, residents had not experienced a water and sewer rate increase in a decade.

At this past Monday night's meeting, Finance Director Bud Schatz was on hand to explain his reasoning for asking for an additional 6.86 percent increase in water rates and a 6.89 percent raise in sewer rates. The sewer rate increase includes 3 percent set aside to start rebuilding the depleted funds in the sewer reserve. The extra 3 percent Schatz designated in sewer reserve funds would generate an estimated $37,000. Schatz told the Council that amount could vary, depending on a number of circumstances, including water and sewer use, as well as weather.

The Council unanimously approved the suggestion for the increase proposed by Schatz and will hold a public meeting at a future date before final approval is given.

The increase in water and sewer rates is needed to bring the city in compliance with covering the mandated debt for the city's water and sewer bonds. Sunnyside is not in compliance with the requirements of the bond debt.

Sunnyside resident Larry Hill brought the same request he did a few months ago before Council last night, asking for a reduction in rates for disabled and senior citizens.

"They are financially strapped," said Hill.

Another Sunnyside resident, Carol Stone, said she understands the city has to implement the rate increases to cover expenses with water and sewer debts. Stone did say, though, she was not in favor of the Council's approach. Stone said she would have rather seen the city implement small increases each year instead of substantial ones at one time.

Councilman Don Vlieger was in favor assisting less fortunate people, but explained any time people are subsidized, those who are not end up "flipping" the bill. Vlieger suggested implementing a tier-like system that would have all residents paying one fee until they reach a certain point of use. Residents would then incur additional costs once they passed a certain amount of use.

Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler is scheduled to bring additional information about the sliding billing scale for disabled and senior citizen residents to a future Council meeting.

Vlieger's suggestion brought forth another issue with which the Council will have to address. The city has been under fire from the state to change its billing system for water and sewer services, which basically rewards users for using more. Schatz said the city has been warned in the past about its billing methods, which doesn't stress conservation.

Public Works Superintendent Ken Ott said the billing rate is a matter the city is looking at in its water comprehensive plan. Ott is expected to have a report to Council in the next few months on the matter.

Ricks asked why the city doesn't change the billing system now. Schatz said he is waiting until improvements are done on the wastewater treatment plant, so he can better calculate the financial end of any changes.

The wastewater treatment plant discussion turned Monday night's conversation about water and sewer rate increases in yet another direction. Bridges informed the Council he is pursuing an avenue of funding through the Department of Ecology's State Revolving Fund, which could provide a 100 percent loan for the $12 million the city needs to make improvements to the wastewater facility. The loan would be at an interest rate of 1-1/2 percent for 20 years. Bridges said the State Revolving Fund is a better option than the Public Works Trust Fund, despite it having a lower interest rate, because the city won't have to provide any match to receive 100 percent of the funding.

Ricks wanted to know if this program has always been in place because it is the first he had heard of it. Bridges said the Department of Ecology has always had the program. Ricks wanted to explore the program more, which could also provide the city with additional funding to refinance some of its existing water and sewer bond debt. Bridges said the city is currently working to meet a Feb. 3 application deadline. If that deadline is not met, the city will have to wait until September for the next application cycle.

"This is a heck of an opportunity," said Ricks.

. Mike Kantman can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or email him at mkantman@eaglenewspapers.com

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