Sewer plan is for hike of 50 percent

It appears flushing is getting even more expensive.

City residents have seen their utility costs climb in recent years – especially sewer charges, which increased 27 percent in 2006, another 27 percent in 2007 and a final 27 percent in 2008. While those rate hikes might have have pinched residents on a budget, they pale in comparison to the suggestion now being floated at City Hall.

Public Works Director Chris Searcy went before members of the Enumclaw City Council July 27 to explain a proposed ordinance that would bump sewage rates another 25 percent in September and an additional 25 percent with the coming of the new year. The proposed increase would be across the board, impacting all classifications.

The proposal was offered for a “first reading” only, meaning it will next appear on the council’s Monday agenda. During that meeting, it’s expected council will take a final vote on the matter. City Administrator Mark Bauer said there will be time for public comment before council members render a decision.

A July 22 memo from Searcy to the mayor and council members noted that the city’s residential customers paid a flat rate of $24.80 in 2005. A study of the sewer operation recommended three straight years of increases, which aimed to see monthly rates leap to $50.80 by 2008.

“The actual revenue received by the 2,670 single family residential customers resulted in an average rate of $43.30,” Searcy wrote, explaining that three factors have apparently combined to keep revenues less than he had expected.

First, much of the department’s income is generated by water use, Searcy wrote, and city customers have reduced their consumption by 10 percent since 2005. Second, the city has programmed its billing software in a way that spurred a $75,000 annual shortage; and, finally, the city has more than 100 accounts that use minimal water – primarily vacant homes – which do not contribute to the revenue stream.

The sewer utility is required, by law, to be an “enterprise fund,” meaning expenditures and revenues must balance. Factored into the utility’s budget is the expansion of the wastewater treatment plant, which has climbed steadily in price. When the last sewage rate study was completed in 2005 – the one that recommended three straight years of 27 percent rate hikes – it was estimated that the treatment plant upgrade would cost $23 million. The price tag has since jumped to $33 million.

“Thus, the rate study did not anticipate the much larger annual debt service payment,” Search wrote in his memo.

Also hammering the department’s budget is the stagnant economy that has seen building projects slowed to a crawl.

It was anticipated that completion of the treatment plant expansion project would spur growth in Enumclaw – the type of growth that translates to connection charges, which mean money in the department coffers.

The 2005 rate study anticipated more than $280,000 in revenues from connection charges. Instead, Searcy is looking at collecting about $54,000 in 2009 “and the outlook for 2010 residential construction activity is not particularly good either,” he wrote.

The math is rather simple: the lack of new construction, and accompanying revenues, shifts the financial burden to existing ratepayers.

While suggesting the pair of 25 percent rate hikes during a five-month span, Searcy warned of more to come.

“Ongoing annual inflationary rate increases may also be necessary depending upon the rate of new customer growth,” his memo said.

Councilman Jim Hogan noted his displeasure over the idea of two rate hikes so close together. Household budgets must be juggled to accommodate added utility costs, he said; if a big rate hike is necessary, he said, it would be better to implement it in a single blow, rather than two separate increases.

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