Council reaches compromise on Langley water rates
By JUSTIN BURNETT
South Whidbey Record Island County
June 19, 2012 · Updated 2:08 PM
The standoff between Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick and the City Council over two sets of proposed water-rate hikes ended Monday with a compromise.
During the council’s regularly scheduled meeting at City Hall, the body agreed unanimously to move forward with the mayor’s recommended plan, albeit with one change.
With conservation in mind, both parties agreed to reduce the amount of water covered by the monthly base rate from 5,000 gallons a month to 4,000 gallons a month. Also, financial and usage data will be reviewed later this year to ensure things are going as expected.
“I’m not completely satisfied but I didn’t want to hold things up,” said Councilman Jim Sundberg, in an interview following the meeting. “I am going to look real closely at the six-month review.”
At a meeting earlier this month, Sundberg was the central voice of discontent on the council concerning the mayor’s recommended plan for raising water rates. His concerns came in the wake of complaints from the public that were voiced at a meeting in May.
Kwarsick’s preferred option was one of three developed by city staff to cover the increasing costs of operating the utility and paying for capital projects planned over the next six years.
It proposed raising the existing base rate of $25.46 to $39.56. The major difference was that instead of being charged 43 cents per 100 gallons, the new base rate would cover up to 5,000 gallons per month (10,000 gallons for two months as it would appear on bi-monthly bills).
The plan was geared to be most beneficial to the majority of users, though it was criticized because people who use the least amount of water would see their bill increase.
Sundberg, councilmen Bruce Allen and Doug Allderdice and Councilwoman Rene Neff all voted for a third option earlier this month. It was developed to favor those who use water sparingly with a monthly base rate of $30 that covered up to 3,750 gallons per billing cycle. Additional usage, up to 10,000 gallons in a two-month period, would cost 75 cents per 100 gallons.
Councilman Hal Seligson was against the proposal, saying he preferred a simpler rate structure not based on a cost-per-gallon system.
In response to the criticism, Kwarsick had a financial analysis of the two rate structures performed on customers using 2011 usages. Of 20 families reviewed, only two saw their bills decrease with option 3.
“Our conclusion is it wasn’t family friendly,” said Kwarsick during Monday’s meeting.
He also had Utilities Supervisor Randi Perry testify to the benefits of option 2. Perry said its greatest strength is that the higher base rate carries more predictability for the revenue stream, which better guarantees the funding of the projects in the six-year plan.
Alternatively, option 3 carries less financial certainty with a lower base rate because it will rely more heavily on per 100-gallon charges. If people conserved under the new structure, revenues could fall below planned levels.
“We’re putting (revenue income) in our users’ hands and that’s a big risk,” Perry said.
It was also made clear that Langley residents are already doing an exceptional job at conserving water, so much so that it’s causing problems. Sediment is building up in the pipes, which forces the city to flush the system and waste much of the water saved.
“The reality is conservation, and I hate to say this, is hurting small water systems,” Kwarsick said.
Sundberg said some of the arguments presented by city officials appeared a bit “loaded,” claiming that information was being presented selectively. He also questioned why the city would present option 3 as an alternative if they are now saying that it’s a financially risky proposition.
Allderdice also voiced confusion about the issue and it appeared the stalemate might continue. However, both parties eventually agreed to a compromise. Option 2 would be adopted but only if the allowed usage covered in the base rate is lowered and a comprehensive review of the new structure is performed later this year.
The council formalized the settlement with a unanimous vote.
Kwarsick emphasized that while no one can exactly predict how customers will react to any new rate structure, he believes this will come at considerably less risk and expressed gratitude to the council.
“I appreciate the council’s willingness to compromise and look at option 2,” Kwarsick said.
“I think it will end up being good for the utility and the rate payer,” he said.
Contact South Whidbey Record Island County Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.