“Water is our most valuable natural resource… only tap water delivers public health protection, fire protection, support for the economy and the quality of life we enjoy,” Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson said in his opening words to the April 24 council workshop. “We are all stewards of the water infrastructure upon which future generations depend… each citizen of our city is called upon to help protect our source waters from pollution, to practice water conservation, and to get involved in local water issues by getting to know their water.”
This proclamation was an official announcement of Washington’s Drinking Water Week, May 6 through 12, but Johnson’s words underscore an issue Bonney Lake has been dealing with for several years — what projects are the most important for operating and maintaining such an important utility, and how much should that cost taxpayers?
During the April 17 workshop, Geoff Dillard, a principal engineer with the engineering firm RH2, told the council — in no uncertain terms — what projects they need to focus on and fund during the April 17 council meeting.
The city has been working with RH2 Engineering for years, and the firm knows the city’s water and sewer utilities well, Bonney Lake Public Works Director John Vodopich has said.
On multiple occasions over the last two years, RH2 has presented the council a Capital Improvements Project (CIP) list, detailing what water and sewer projects need to be taken care of immediately, and which can be deferred.
Bonney Lake would then take these lists and give it to the Financial Consulting Services Group (FCS), which examined the cost of the projects and determine how the city can fund them, mainly through the rise and fall of water and sewer utility taxes on residents.
Almost always, the council was unhappy with FCS’ numbers, so the city would go back to RH2 to defer a few more projects, which would lower FCS’ estimations for how high rate increases would need to go.
This back and forth has now happened two times, according to Dillard, but this third time might just be the end of the road, because there’s no other projects RH2 could recommend be put on hold by the city.
“The CIP you have now, I would say, is pretty ironclad,” Dillard said.
In total, the water CIP would cost the city $24 million over the next five years. The original CIP was closer to $30 million, but approximately 23 percent of projects were deferred.
The sewer CIP comes in at $8 million over five years, approximately $3 million less than the original sewer CIP.
With these proposed CIPs in their laps, the council now has to decide how to pay for these projects.
Looking at the first CIP drafts in May 2017, FCS recommended the city raise water rates by an average of 7.5 percent over five years (starting June 2017), and sewer rates by 4.3 percent per year for five years (again starting June 2017).
The council balked at those high rate increases, but voted in a one-time 9 percent increase for water and 5.5 increase for sewer in May 2017.
In Sept. 2017, FCS came back with a new recommendation of a flat 4 percent per year increase for five years for both sewer and water rates.
The council wanted to increase sewer rates to a flat 4.5 percent increase and keep the water rates at 4 percent through 2022, but the decision was derailed when dozens of residents brought to the council a water consumption issue lat October, and a vote on the rates never went through.
Councilman Tom Watson asked the council if it made sense to continue the flat 4 percent rate increases for water sewer utilities suggested by FCS. Councilman Dan Swatman agreed, and said, “It would be good to see the actual model from FCS with those numbers in it, so we, as Councilman Watson pointed out, make sure that we’re having the appropriate rates set to match the project set.”
City Administrator Don Morrison said there won’t be another rate study, but FCS will be tweaking their rate model “to figure the rate increase needed to complete the CIP projects the Council has finally agreed on.”
“They hope this will come to no more than a 4 percent annual increase, but until FCSG runs the numbers, we won’t know for sure,” Morrison added. “I expect the proposed rate ordinance to be ready for Council consideration sometime in June, with an anticipated September 1 effective date.”
The full version of this article can be found on www.courierherald.com, along with the full Powerpoint presentation RH2 gave to the city council, detailing what projects the firm believes the city should be tackling in the next five years.