Not many things will sink your heart faster than a $1,000 water bill.
The Oct. 10 Bonney Lake City Council meeting was overflowing with residents whose recent water bills have doubled or even tripled from their usual amount, even though they say they haven’t increased their water consumption.
“We’re having to make decisions about how often I bathe my kids,” one mother shared with the council.
On top of that, residents were also frustrated the council is considering a 4 percent increase in water rates and a 4.5 percent increase in sewer rates every year for the next four years.
The issues are separate but related, Community Development Director John Vodopich said in an interview after the meeting.
The first and presumably the more pressing issue for residents is how and why their latest water bills skyrocketed.
Many, like Cindy Gilsing, received a letter from the city in mid-September saying her “consumption was flagged as high” for the water she used between July 10 and Sept. 13.
Specifically, her meter recorded her household using 61 centum cubic feet (CCF) of water during that time period;
1 CCF is equal to 748 gallons of water — Gilsing’s 61 CCFs translates to more than 45,600 gallons.
The letter recommended she check for a possible leak or scale back on watering her lawn or washing her car, since during the same billing period last year, she only used 18 CCFs (or close to 13,500 gallons) of water.
But Gilsing believes she should have been using even less water compared to last year. Her previous water bill showed her using less than half of the water between May 4 and July 10 in 2017 than in 2016, due to the water-saving appliances and techniques she used this past summer.
“I installed three low flush toilets a number of months ago. I don’t take baths, I take showers. I let my lawn get brown for the first time this summer. I did do some watering but not anywhere near the amount that I did the (previous) years,” Gilsing said in an email interview after the Oct. 10 meeting. “The only possibility that I could think of was that there was some sort of hidden leak.”
She had the city come out to check for a leak, but the city did not find one.
“So I did not have a leak and I knew that I had not done anything unusual as far as using water… I figured that I would just wait for the bill to arrive,” Gilsing said.
The bill seemed to confirm Gilsing using 61 CFFs of water, which costs her $322.
“I have lived in this house since about January of 2012. I have never had a bill like this one,” she said.
She went to the Nextdoor application, a private social media network for individual neighborhoods, to ask if anyone else was had a much higher bill than usual without vastly increasing their water usage.
“My mailbox was suddenly flooded with replies from people who had similar experiences to the one I was having,” she said. “The posts just keep coming.”
Many people — approximately 375, city officials said — received the same letter as Gilsing, but some others said they never got a notice from the city that their usage was unusually high.
The initial response from city staff was that the dry spell and heat spell that hit the area in August and September could explain a hike in many residence’s water usage.
“That drove up a lot of bills,” said City Administrator Don Morrison. “Consumption for August and September this year was probably four or five times higher than it was in prior years… the meters are pretty accurate, and if there’s a leak or high consumption, we notify people so they have an opportunity to check if there is a leak or cut back their consumption.”
In an email to staff, Superintendent of Public Works Ryan Johnstone explained how water consumption can quickly get out of control, especially if residents water their lawns.
“A typical residential irrigation system uses 3-5 gpm (gallons per minute) per sprinkler head. How many heads does a typical residential irrigation system have? Let’s assume 10,” Johnstone wrote. “10 heads at 3 gpm per minute and the heads run 20 minutes each morning and 20 minutes each afternoon yields a total consumption of 1,200 gallons per day.”
Gilsing, and many other residents, don’t buy the city’s explanation.
“The city wants people to believe that the large bills have something to do with leaks or the fact that we just had a dry summer or something that is the consumer’s fault,” she said. “I don’t know if it is negligence or a software error or someone trying to find a way to pay for expensive things they have already purchased.”
WHAT IS THE CITY CHECKING?
Mayor Neil Johnson and the City Council already expressed interest in hosting a community meeting, headed by Vodopich, to explain Bonney Lake’s water system, their billing system, why water and sewer rates need to increase (and how they could possibly limit rate increases), and what information the city has found, if any, regarding why some bills were so high this month.
The city collected contact information from people interested in attending this community meeting, but no date has been set.
As to what else the city is going to do between now and the community meeting, “We’re looking at everything,” Vodopich said in an Oct. 11 interview.
Some residents at the meeting observed that the addresses of people who received these larger bills seemed to be grouped together.
Vodopich said the city will map out those addresses to see if there’s any sort of pattern than could indicate an issue in Bonney Lake’s system.
“Is it one meter reading route?… Is there some kind of geographic area this is occurring in? How widespread is the issue?” Vodopich said, listing off things the city will be looking for.
Vodopich said they’re also going to double check meters, and how they check the meters will differ depending if residents have a manual meter or what he called a “radio-read” meter.
For a manual reader, city employees lift up the cover, look at the meter dial and do the math by hand (or calculator).
For radio-read meters, city employees just have to approach the meter with a wand that records how much water the meter has measured through a sensor in the lid of the meter.
“We don’t know right now, and what we’re delving into and trying to investigate, is how many of these are the old meters? How many are radio-read?” Vodopich said, adding that while its possible either type of meter could be askew in some fashion, it’s unlikely this would happen on a large scale.
WHAT ABOUT THE RATE INCREASES?
The Bonney Lake City Council has been discussing rate increases for close to a year, but after receiving multi-hundred dollar water bills, residents are more than a little worried about those bills becoming even more expensive in the near future.
In November 2016, the city hired Financial Consulting Services Group (FSC) to conduct a utility rate study after it was announced Sumner would be hiring additional sewer employees, which would increase sewer expenditures in Bonney Lake, since Sumner treats their sewage.
FSC completed their study in May 2017 and recommended the council increase their utility rates immediately, or risk being unable to continue operating either water or sewer utilities in just a few years, let alone complete capital improvement projects mandated by the state Department of Health.
The consulting group suggested Bonney Lake adopt not one huge rate increase for both utilities, but stagger the increases over the next several years. FSC suggested the council increase water rates by 9 percent in July 2017, another 9 percent in 2018, 8 percent for 2019 and 2020, 6 percent for 2021 and 5 percent for 2022.
For sewer rates, the firm recommended 5.5 percent in July 2017 and 2018, 5 percent for 2019, 4 percent for 2020 and 2021, and 3 percent for 2022.
Some council members bristled at the suggested increases during discussions, but ultimately, the council decided to increase water rates by 9 percent and sewer rates by 5.5 percent during the May 23 meeting in a 4-3 vote. Deputy Mayor Randy McKibbon and Councilmen Tom Watson and Dan Swatman voting against the resolution.
However, the council did not adopt a rate increase schedule for 2018 through 2022, deciding instead to do some further research and try to bring future rate increases down for city residents.
Working with FSC and engineering firm RH2, city staff came back to the council Sept. 19 with a new rate increases schedule — a 4 percent increase a year for water and sewer — through 2022.
The consultants and the city were able to bring down the rate increases by pushing less necessary capital improvement projects further out into the future.
Council opted instead for a 4.5 percent increase for sewer rates and kept water rates at a 4 percent increase during the Sept. 26 meeting, but action on the increases were tabled to the Oct. 10 meeting.
But after hearing about an hour’s worth of testimony from residents about their extraordinarily large water bills, the Bonney Lake City Council voted 3-2 on Oct. 10 to table action on utility rate increases indefinitely while Mayor Neil Johnson, the council and city staff begin discussions with residents about Bonney Lake’s water system, why rate increases are necessary, and determine why some bills have become unmanageable.
Former Councilwoman Katrina Minton-Davis recently resigned her seat and McKibbon were absent. Councilmen Donn Lewis, James Rackley and Swatman voted to table the utility rate increase resolutions.
Councilmen Justin Evans and Watson voted against tabling the issue, but clarified after the meeting they would have preferred the council vote down the utility rate increases. By Bonney Lake council rules, this would have required the council to start the resolution process over again, instead of just pushing the issue to another date.
Both Evans and Watson said they believe there’s still more ways the city, FSC and RH2 can reduce utility rate increases, either by cutting costs or delaying less necessary capital improvement projects.
ARE BONNEY LAKE’S WATER RATES COMPARABLE?
Morrison pointed out to the residents in attendance that the city’s water rates, even with potential increases, are equivalent to surrounding cities like Buckley, Auburn or Sumner.
Residents were dubious.
This last summer, Bonney Lake residents who live inside city limits currently paid $1.37 for every 1 CCF of water every month, so long as they use 10 CFFs or less. Price per CCF goes up if you use more than 10 CFFs of water.
Outside city limits, residents pay $1.98 for every CFF of water.
Bonney Lake bills residents every two months, meaning residents pay for two months of water at a time.
Sumner residents inside city limits pay $1.96 for every CFF of water used between 1 and 10 CFFs of water in the summer. There’s a 15 percent surcharge on residents outside city limits.
Buckley residents inside city limits pay $2.03 for every CFF of water between 2 and 7 CFFs of water, and $2.69 for every CCF of water between 7.01 and 15 CFFs in the summer. Residents outside the city have an additional 20 percent surcharge.
In both summer and winter, Auburn residents inside city limits start with a $16.12 base rate and pay an additional $3.20 for every CFF of water for between 0 and 7 CFFs of water. An additional 50 percent surcharge is added to residents outside city limits.