2/27/2018 CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly listed the open house date as March 9. The meeting is March 3, from 10 a.m. to noon. The article has been updated.
ORIGINAL STORY: Water — many take it for granted when they turn on their faucet, flush a toilet, or take a shower.
But behind every drop is a complex system of pipes, chemical control, pressure zones, and compulsory regulations that dictate your water quality and how much you pay for it.
On March 3, Bonney Lake city staff are hosting an open house on everything water utility related, bringing in a number of experts in their fields to explain what the city does, and why the city does it.
“The biggest takeaway will hopefully be a better understanding how… the system works, they understand what my staff’s role is in that, and maybe have more appreciation for the complexity behind what’s going on, and then link that to the financial side of things,” said Ryan Johnstone, Bonney Lake’s superintendent of Public Works. “It really does take an investment by all of us to keep this system in operation and in compliance with regulatory agencies.”
The open house, which will be housed in the Bonney Lake Senior Center on Bonney Lake Boulevard, is from 10 a.m. to noon.
Staff plan for the open house to be split into three parts — an overview of the system, a summary of some regulatory requirements, and an explanation of the water utility rates — with time for residents to ask questions between each section.
Coming to speak at the event is Geoff Dillard, a professional engineer with RH2 Engineering, a firm that specializes in municipal utility and infrastructure and has worked with the city for many years; a representative from Neptune Technology Group, the manufacturer of water meters in Bonney Lake; Jennifer Kropack, a Department of Health Regional Planner who reviews city and county water system plans; and Chris Gonzales, a project manager with FCS (Financial Consulting Services) Group, a utility rate consulting group that has worked with the city for many years, including recommending in 2017 and last fall that the city should raise their water and sewer utility rates, or risk being unable to pay for necessary improvements to the utility systems, or even pay for basic operation and maintenance.
There’s a lot of information that will be presented, so if you’re not the fastest note taker, there’s no time for your questions, or even if you can’t attend, fear not.
“We’ll have notecards there that people can write their questions down on, and our plan is to type them all up and respond to them,” said Leslie Harris, Bonney Lake’s management analyst, adding that presentation materials, questions, and answers will be made available on the city’s website the week following the open house.
BONNEY LAKE’S COMPLICATED SYSTEM
City staff, with data and recommendations from RH2 and FCS Group, argue rate increases are necessary to stay on top of a working water utility system.
There are many parts to the utility, Johnstone said, many of which people are unaware of.
“For a water system our size, we have a lot of different components to it. To give you an idea, we’ve got five different sources, five different reservoirs, five booster stations, eight different treatment facilities, nine different interties with separate agencies, 21 pressure reducing valves throughout the city, over 200 miles of pipe of varying diameters, and 12 to 14 different pressure zones,” he said. “All of that comes together to create not a completely unique animal, but something that is definitely unique here for us in this area. Certainly there are elements of those things in every water system, but we just happen to bring a lot of it together in one.”
All of these components of the water system eventually need to be replaced or upgraded, Johnstone said. These projects are listed in the city’s Water Capital Improvement Plan, which can be found online under the city’s utility billing webpage.
The Water Capital Improvement Plan is a 20-year plan that the City Council passed in 2015 as a part of its overall Comprehensive Plan.
For 2018, improvements include $500,000 for a 12-inch water main replacement on Myers Road, $4.4 million for the construction of a new Public Works yard, and $273,000 for replacing aging water meters. In total, there’s roughly $8.7 million in improvement projects for 2018.
In 2020, the city expects needing roughly $16 million for improvement projects, including $1.5 million for a 16-inch water main replacement, $8.6 million for the construction of a Public Works Center, and $4.4 million to replace a Tacoma Point Water reservoir.
The need for system improvements drive utility rate increases, city staff says.
But several council members have resisted rate hikes, and residents — especially several who were affected by extraordinarily high water bills at the end of last summer — are not keen on seeing their bills increase.
Discussions about rate increases go back to Nov. 8, 2016, when the Bonney Lake City Council hired FCS Group to perform a utility rate study after it was announced the city of Sumner was hiring more full-time workers for its sewer treatment plant.
Bonney Lake’s wastewater goes through Sumner’s treatment plant, so the more money the treatment plant uses, the more the city has to pay for those services, which could lead to a rise in sewer rates.
On April 18, 2017, FCS Group returned to the city with their findings, recommending the city raise water rates by 9 percent in 2017 and 2018, 8 percent in 2019 and 2020, 6 percent in 2021 and 5 percent in 2022.
For the average household, this would have roughly increased water bills between $2 and $2.50 per month every year through 2022.
The consulting group also recommended sewer rates be raised by 5.5 percent in 2017 and 2018, 5 percent in 2019, 4 percent in 2020 and 2021, and 3 percent in 2022.
For the average household, this would have roughly increased sewer bills by between $4 and $4.80 per year through 2022.
The reason FCS Group recommended these rate increases was because of the necessary capital improvement projects RH2 said the city needed, as well as the regulations the Department of Health said the city needed to comply with.
“RH2, our consulting engineers, have been with us for a number of years. They know our system and the age of our system, and can best speak from an engineering perspective what improvements need to be done earlier rather than later,” said John Vodopich, Bonney Lake’s Public Works director. “They had done a whole chart that listed all the projects, the anticipated cost, what year it was programmed in to be completed. And that, in turn, is what the FCS Group took to build their rate study off of, in part.”
Some council members, like Tom Watson, Dan Swatman and James Rackley, balked at those percentages, and instead, recommended the city start with a 5 percent water rate increase, rather than a 9 percent increase.
The council ultimately stuck with FCS Group’s recommended rate increases, but only increased water and sewer rates for 2017, deciding instead to continue looking at somehow mitigating future rate hikes.
FCS Group and RH2 once again came to the city after some examinations, and told the council that by putting off additional improvements to the water system, water rate increases can be lowered to a flat 4 percent increase per year through 2022, and sewer rates a flat 4.5 percent per year.
The council postponed voting on the rate increases until Oct. 10, but discussion was derailed when dozens of angry residents attended the meeting with expensive water bills and protested against the rate increases.
The vote on utility rate increases was tabled again as the city conducted an internal audit on their water system, which residents claim must have made a mistake due to their high bills (some up to four times what they’ve paid in the past) and ridiculous levels of water consumption they say they never used.
It was during this meeting that the idea of an open house to explain the city’s water system was first floated, but a date wasn’t set until Feb. 16, when city sent out the open house announcement.
The internal audit was completed Jan. 23, 2018, with the city saying it found little to no inaccuracies in its utility system that could have caused bills to mistakenly skyrocket.
Some residents continued to argue their bills were incorrect, but were left with little options but to pay them. Several went on interest-free payment plans to eventually pay off their multi-hundred dollar water bills.
Residents who may not have received high water bills at the end of last summer have also complained about Bonney Lake’s water rates, saying they’re too high compared to other cities.
Bonney Lake has maintained their water rates are comparable, if not cheaper than surrounding cities. The average water bill in the city, assuming a family is using the smallest available meter and 5,200 gallons of water (or 7 centum cubic feet of water) is roughly $26 per month, or $52 every two months, which is how often the city sends employees out to read meters.
Comparatively, the average bill in Buckley is about $32 per month, and in Sumner, $36 per month, according to an October 2017 city-compiled comparison.
According to FCS Group, what hits households the hardest is Bonney Lake’s sewer bills. According to their April 2017 presentation, the average sewer bill (assuming 7 CCFs of water used) in Bonney Lake was $83 per month, compared to Buckley’s $80 and Sumner’s $65.
The cost is high, said Vodopich and City Administrator Don Morrison, because of the city’s topography and the need for more sewer lift stations than average.