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Water rates take a hike in Scatchet Head

In a quickly made decision to raise its basic water rate, the Scatchet Head Water District has nearly tripled the annual water bill for about 38 percent of its customers.

Claiming that the increase was necessary to stave off a budget shortfall for the current year, the three commissioners representing the 404-customer district -- one of the largest on South Whidbey behind water systems in Langley, Freeland and Clinton -- passed a motion July 9 to bump the basic rate from $25.62 to $70 per quarter. The new rate pays for 2000 cubic feet of water, as opposed to the 500 cubic feet covered by the old rate.

While on a monthly basis the new rate is higher than most city-operated water districts in the state, as calculated by the Association of Washington Cities, the price is not the objection raised by some Scatchet Head residents. The district's monthly average for the new rate -- approximately $31 per 1,000 cubic feet of water per month -- falls between Langley at $23 and Oak Harbor at $36.

The new rate will not only make the district's $102,000 annual budget, but it will also raise enough money to put approximately $11,000 into a reserve account.

The one objection to the rate change comes instead over the process by which it was approved. Harry Scott, a Scatchet Head resident who is politically active in the community, said he has no objection to the water district's need for more money, but was upset this week that district commissioners did not give notice to ratepayers before increasing its basic rate.

"My big dilemma is why all of a sudden," he said.

According to water commissioner Fremming, when the district's commissioners became aware of a possible budget shortfall at their June meeting, they began planning a rate hike. However, between that time, the district's July meeting, and the mailing of a rate adjustment notification last Saturday, district rate payers received no warning a rate increase was in the offing. No public notice was published and, according to the district's July 9 meeting minutes, the commissioners discussed the increase in an executive session, a portion of the meeting that is closed to the public. According to water commissioner John Fremming, the vote to approve the rate hike was made outside the executive session, even though the minutes seem to indicate otherwise.

Hal Schloman, a legal expert with the Washington Sewer and Water District Association, noted that the water district was under no obligation to hold a public hearing regarding the rate hike, but said the commissioners should not have discussed the hike in executive session. Legally, the only subjects that may talked about in such a session are legal matters, some personnel matters, and contractual items that could inflate the price of real estate or services if they were discussed publicly.

Commenting on the executive session discussion of the rate hike, Fremming noted that the district's minutes have not yet been approved and will likely be changed to show that a vote for the rate hike was taken outside of executive session.

With the rate hike in place for the start of the coming quarter, water district customers are now figuring out whether they will be financial winners or losers. Harry Scott said he and his wife, Vicki, will pay about 40 percent more on their quarterly water bills once the new rate goes into effect. While that will be inconvenient for them and the more than one-third of the district's other customers who use less than 500 cubic feet of water per quarter, he said families will benefit.

Ron Safford, another Scatchet Head resident, said he regularly pays $85 a quarter under the current rate structure for just over 2000 cubic feet of water. With the new basic rate, his family of five will pay about $10 less per bill.

Had the rate change been enacted earlier, Safford would have saved even more this quarter, since watering his lawn and gardens have increased his water usage.

"I was not looking forward to my bill this time," he said.

Water commissioner Fremming said he has actually gotten positive feedback about the rate increase, even from the owner of a recreational lot who receives no water service but who must still pay the new basic rate.

"We're trying to make it fair all the way around," he said.

The rate change is the district's second since 1999. That year, the district's commissioners created a new rate schedule calculated to pay off two state public works loans the district used to install new water mains and a water treatment system. Fremming said revenue from that rate schedule fell short, even though the district never spent as much money as it planned -- it was able to pass on a $28,000 ozone treatment system when it was found that filtering successfully removed iron and manganese from the district's water.

The district currently owes about $472,000 on those loans.

Last year, the district managed to make payments on its loans by using money earned from the sale of new water hookups and water meters. Those sales have been all but nonexistent this year, according to Fremming.

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