Water districts battle bill that would authorize utility tax increase

A Clinton water commissioner is battling state legislation that would let cities, towns and the county raise local utility bills by as much as six percent.

“Everybody’s looking for money, but this is not a good bill,” said Maury Hood, head of the Clinton Water District board of commissioners and president of the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts.

He said the association is sending a letter to House Majority Leader Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown urging defeat of the bill.

“This is a regressive tax on essential public utilities,” the letter says.

The bill is being reviewed by the rules committee. It may be back in the Senate for a vote as early as next week, Hood said.

Section 12 of the measure, Second Substitute Senate Bill 5433, would permit a city or town to impose a tax of up to six percent on the gross income of a water-sewer district.

But what worries Hood and the association are Sections 4 and 5 of the bill, which would permit a county “to adopt an ordinance creating a rural public safety and infrastructure district in all of the unincorporated area of the county.”

Once such a district is created, the county could impose a utility tax of up to six percent on water districts in unincorporated areas, Hood said. Electric utilities are excluded in the bill.

“We’re looking like sitting ducks,” he said.

According to the bill, however, the county could only create such a district after a public hearing and after it is determined that it would be “in the public interest.”

“Island County’s hard-pressed for money, but I hope they wouldn’t do this,” Hood said. “But just the fact that they could have the option is not comforting at all. At any moment, that ax could fall.”

There are 17 water and or sewer districts in Island County, seven of which are on South Whidbey south of Greenbank, Hood said.

Water and sewer districts in unincorporated areas of the county can’t levy taxes, Hood said; they can only adjust fees.

“We are local governments, with no taxing authority, that provide essential services,” Hood wrote in his letter to the legislators. “Our maintenance and operation budgets are funded by our rate base. We have no other funding sources.”

The association’s letter added that because of an emphasis on conservation, member water districts are selling much less water than in previous years.

A further tax would inhibit efforts “to keep our systems in workable fashion.”

“The tax money would go into the general fund, and not to improve utilities,” Hood said.

He said that because of the deteriorating economy, the Clinton district increased user fees this year by less than a dollar. The district serves about 750 customers.

Hood said there’s more than enough hardship on South Whidbey without adding to it. He said the Clinton district already this year has shut off water service to six customers because of foreclosures. Last year at this time, there was one shut-off.

He said water and sewer districts are required by law to shut off service in cases of delinquency, and cannot forgive the debt because it would be considered a gift of government funds.

“If they still do not pay, we then must file liens on their property, and if allowed to run to the final conclusion, we have to foreclose on their homes,” the letter says.

Hood, who also serves on the Good Cheer Food Bank board, noted that the nonprofit is ministering to more than 23 percent of South County, and the number is rising.

“We can’t give them another six-percent whack on their utility bills without causing trouble,” he said. “I would hope the county would understand that.”

“We only ask that we be permitted to continue our efforts to provide affordable, clean, safe drinking water and reliable sewer service to our citizens,” the letter concludes.

Hood has been a Clinton Water District commissioner for seven years. He urged residents to contact their state representatives and instruct them to defeat the bill.

“We’re doing our very best to tighten our belts,” he said. “We’re trying to protect our constituents, but we’re vulnerable.”

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