Bainbridge council, community remains divided on transferring management of water utility

The Bainbridge Island City Council remains split on the merits of a move to outsource management of the city's water utility.

At the council meeting Wednesday, council members remained clearly divided over the idea to contract with the Kitsap Public Utility District for the water purveyor to take over management of the city utility.

High water rates in years past have made some islanders anxious to get the city of Bainbridge Island out of the water business.

Councilman Steve Bonkowski has spearheaded the most recent attempt to move the utility from under the city's purview.

On Wednesday, he said city staff would benefit from a switch to outside management, because city employees would be able to divert their energy toward other areas that need attention, such as roads.

Critics of the city's management of its water system have repeatedly noted that it only serves approximately 20 percent of the island.

Opponents of a switch, however, have said a change to an outside manager would create unnecessary turmoil at city hall and that the benefits of outside contracting have been overstated.

Bonkowski disagreed that the impact of a switch would be negative.

"It is not going to be this huge disruption to city staff," he said.

"The highest amount of hours per week of any individual is four hours per week (spent on the water utility)," he said. "You are talking about people you are charging a tenth of their time to the water utility. So the complexity of dismantling, is not going to be easy, but it is not a massive thing where we will have to do a massive reorganization," Bonkowski said.

Others on the council did not appear convinced.

"What you've presented are some interesting theories, and I'm not willing to make a multimillion dollar decision based on one person's theory and conjecture," said Councilman Bob Scales.

"We are going to have less staff (if the utility is outsourced). We are going to have chaos," Scales said.

The council ultimately decided to charge City Manager Doug Schulze with developing a picture of what the city will look like without its water utility, and how it will be affected. The review will cover staff and city finances in particular.

Schulze will return to the council at a future council meeting to discuss his findings.

The difference in opinion over the fate of the water utility was also evident from residents who spoke out Wednesday night on the outsourcing proposal.

On one side are some who feel the city cannot be trusted to operate its water utility based on Bainbridge's history of charging high water raters to its customers in past years.

Other islanders think the city should have a chance to prove itself after its prolonged internal review and downward adjustment of water rates.

Still fresh in many minds is the fact that the water utility charged its customers nearly twice the amount that surrounding agencies did in past years.

The rates were reduced by 45 percent in 2011, but a public debate has continued to swirl over whether the city should keep its water utility, or transfer it or its management to an outside entity.

"The question is whether it is in the best interest of the water utility ratepayers to give the city yet another chance to get it right," Sally Adams told council members at their meeting this week. Adams is a member of Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance, a group that is suing the city over utility issues.

"Is getting it right even a possibility?" she asked. "I say probably not. Which is why the council has spent a couple years here trying to address years of the city failing getting it right."

But others said the proposed change was more about punishment than progress.

"The primary reason for this management transfer is to punish the city for past misdeeds," said Randall Samstag, a former member of the city's Utility Advisory Committee.

Samstag said transferring the utility would result in a variety of negative and costly impacts to the city.

"The Ratepayers Alliance has called attention to high rates, and they have now been lowered," said Bob Bosserman, another former member of the Utility Advisory Committee.

"That's a good thing, it's done. Now it's time to move on," Bosserman said. "Now is not the time to punish the current city staff for the former administration's actions."



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