Water-tax hike clears first hurdle for out-of-city users in Langley

LANGLEY — The Langley City Council gave its initial approval Monday night to a 6-percent increase in the utility tax paid by water customers who live outside the city limits.

The action came following a public hearing on the issue attended by several water customers affected by the proposed increase, who sought clarification and got a history lesson.

The tax, an average increase of about $32 per year for the 165 water customers who would be required to pay it, is designed to help compensate the city for providing hydrant maintenance and other services involved in fire protection, said Debbie Mahler, Langley’s director of finance.

She said the proposed increase is a result of a recent state Supreme Court decision that a city must pay its fire-suppression costs from the general fund, rather than from utility fees.

The utility tax goes directly into the general fund. In-city water customers have been paying the tax for years, which in fairness should be extended to customers outside the city, Mahler said.

While those at the hearing weren’t strongly opposed to the relatively small increase, they pointed out that it would come on top of water bills that already are 22-percent higher than those paid by in-city users.

That rate could be 50 percent, Mayor Paul Samuelson said, launching an explanation of how the city has strived to be “a good neighbor” to outside residents using city services by trying to pin down actual costs.

Samuelson said most cities charge 50 percent more for water delivered to customer outside their city limits.

In 2004, Langley officials tried to establish how much it costs to extend water service beyond city boundaries, and came up with 22 percent.

“It’s a long way from perfect, but we were trying to get a better sense of what the costs are, rather than just saying 50 percent,” said Councilman Robert Gilman, who worked on the current fee structure six years ago.

“It isn’t an exact science,” Samuelson agreed. “Others charge 50 percent because they can.”

Challis Stringer, Langley’s public works director, outlined reasons why water customers outside the city should pay higher rates. Those include the cost of maintaining extended lines, added work hours and fuel consumption involved in servicing scattered components of the system, and the cost of maintaining a physical plant.

Out-of-city water users also benefit from city expertise, stability and security, the opportunity for grant funding and lower insurance rates, Stringer said.

Robert Watson, Robin Adams and others urged the city to try to determine exact costs to verify whether 22 percent is the right figure.

“Don’t hang a number out there — do the analysis,” Adams said.

“As long as the city is doing what it’s doing, it would behoove the city to document these costs,” Watson said.

Geoff Briggs, representing the Sandy Point Homeowners Association, suggested that special consideration be made for areas such as Sandy Point, in which 50 homes are connected to only one water meter.

The city council approved the utility-tax increase unanimously. The final approval is expected at the next council meeting on May 17.

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