In case you have not already heard, I have some unhappy news to deliver. If you live in Bellingham, this January your water and sewer utility bills are going up. City utility rates were unchanged since the early 1990s, but started to rise in 2008. They are scheduled for more increases over the next few years.
I'm not happy about it, but I can hardly blame anyone else. As a city council member, I voted for those new increases. Let me tell you what I learned, and why I felt obliged to support the increases.
It's important for you to know that city-run utilities are self-supporting units within city government. This means that the utility fee revenue is kept separate, and is used only to pay for utility service and nothing else. By state law, the city can charge only as much as is necessary to cover actual costs for service. Some people worry that we increase rates to help with other city costs, but that's not the case.
Although operational costs are increasing with inflation, the single biggest contributing factor is the cost of capital maintenance, i.e., replacing all the big pipes and pumps and facilities that deliver drinking water and take away sewer water. The city has hundreds of miles of aging pipes, and we have delayed replacement and repair.
We cannot afford to defer that work for any longer. We risk more leaks and breaks, which are expensive to repair and disrupt service and cause health and safety concerns.
Your sewer rates must also pay for the ongoing $50 million expansion of the Post Point sewer treatment plant, which is at capacity because of population growth over the last 20 years. That expense is built into your monthly sewer bill.
Lake Whatcom water quality has continued to decline. Because of this, we must now build a $10.7 million pre-treatment facility next to the current water treatment plant, to remove the algae that clog the filters in the summer. This explains much of the increase in the water portion of your bill.
This last part bothers me particularly: I wish we had acted sooner and stronger on Lake Whatcom, because now we are all paying the price in higher water bills.
Another big expense is installing water meters city-wide, as mandated by state law. Although this will enable better conservation and will allow the city to bill everyone more fairly, installing water meters will cost several million dollars in equipment and labor to convert tens of thousands of older homes (built before meters were standard).
The rate increases are spread out over several years to smooth the impact. For example, the pre-treatment facility is due to be engineered in 2013 and built in 2014. There's no way homeowners can afford to pay for it all in 2014, so we spread that cost out over several years. I don't like my bills going up any more than you do, but at least we don't get hit with it all at once.
Finally, even with the proposed increases, Bellingham's utility rates will still be about average or below average compared to other cities in western Washington. The new rates are just below Lynden and Ferndale, much lower than Blaine, and only half of what Seattle residents must pay.
The good news is that Bellingham remains a first-class city. While some cities struggle to keep the lights on and potholes filled, Bellingham residents can be assured the city is looking ahead, doing necessary repairs before things break and insuring that reliable service and public health come first.
When you pay your bill, you should know how and why your money is being spent. As a bill payer and citizen, each of us deserves answers to these questions from our elected leaders. Hopefully, I have done so.
Michael Lilliquist represents Ward 6 on the Bellingham City Council. Contact him at email@example.com.