BELLINGHAM- The City Council is considering another hike in the cost of living for residents: a hefty increase in the stormwater portion of city utility bills.
For 2013, a proposed 21 percent increase in the stormwater fee would add an average of $1.47 per month to the utility bill for the typical household that is now paying $7 a month.
Stormwater charges, first added to city utility bills in 2001, cover costs of city stormwater control and treatment systems. Sixty-nine percent of homeowners now pay the $7 a month rate. Another 14 percent with smaller homes now pay $4.20 a month and would face an 88-cent hike under the rate proposal on the table.
The rest of the city's homeowners - those with larger homes with roofs and paved surfaces of more than 3,000 square feet - pay a customized monthly charge based on the size of their home and paved area. That charge would also increase about 21 percent in 2013 under the proposal.
The increases are recommended in a study of city utility system costs and revenue projections prepared by FCS Group, a Redmond-based consulting firm, under city contracts totaling $136,405.
Besides the initial 21 percent stormwater rate jump proposed for 2013, FCS is also recommending a series of 6 percent annual increases in stormwater rates in each of the next four years, which would add up to a $3.69 monthly increase for the average home by 2017, when the rate would reach $10.69 per month.
At a Monday, Sept, 24, committee discussion, Public Works Director Ted Carlson and Gordon Wilson of FCS told council members that the additional money is needed to cover the operating costs of the stormwater control system, as well as costly repairs, replacements and upgrades that control flooding and reduce pollution from tainted runoff.
Council members indicated they want to give the consultant's recommendations further study. It was clear that council members agree that the stormwater rate needs to be raised, but the exact size of the increase has yet to be determined.
Carlson said he would prefer to have 2013 utility rates approved by the council in time for completion of the city's annual budget in December 2012. Council members indicated they thought that was reasonable, but the council will schedule more public discussion before that happens.
There is a real chance the council will decide to raise the stormwater rate even higher than the consultant's recommendation.
Gordon Wilson of FCS told the council that he recommends covering some of the stormwater system's existing costs with revenue from the Lake Whatcom surcharge on city utility bills, which was raised $7 a month, to a total of $12, beginning in May 2012. The surcharge money is used for lake-quality protection measures such as purchase of land in the lake watershed, and projects to limit the flow of polluted runoff into the lake.
As Wilson explained it, using the added surcharge money to cover stormwater projects in the watershed would help to moderate the need for additional increases in the stormwater rate. If the council decides the stormwater rates should continue to be used to pay for some Lake Whatcom projects, then the stormwater rate increase could amount to as much as 35 cents more per month for the average home.
After the meeting, council member Michael Lilliquist said he has strong misgivings about any such shift in costs. As he sees it, stormwater runoff is the key contributor to the lake's water quality problems, and said it's appropriate to use some of the stormwater money for lake projects.
The increase in the stormwater rate will likely come on top of an additional $3 to $4 per month that is likely to be added to water and sewer rates, based on council discussion at their Sept. 4, 2012, meeting. After that session, council members indicated they are likely to approve increases in that range, and expressed relief the recommended increases were not greater.
Consultant Wilson presented the council with a comparison chart indicating that even if the proposed higher rates for water, sewer and stormwater are adopted for 2013, Bellingham will still have combined utility rates that are lower than many other Washington cities, large and small.
"That doesn't mean it's not hard," Wilson said.
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.