Rate hike likely for city water

The island’s municipal water system is showing signs of age at a time when both regulatory and user demands are increasing, meaning that some significant upgrades are required.

And because the system only serves about a quarter of the island’s population, it isn’t supported by general-fund tax dollars, only by the rates that users pay.

The bottom line: a significant rate increase for next year – to $44.75 per month for a typical Winslow-area residential customer that uses 10,000 cubic feet of water each month, a 27 percent boost from the current rate of $35.28.

“The lines we have aren’t built for the flow we’re seeing today, and those flows wear them out faster,” said city Public Works Director Randy Witt. “When you keep the rates low, you eventually need larger increases.”

The Bainbridge Island City Council’s finance committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed rate increases for next year, at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 in the council chambers conference room.

In October 2000 and again in April 2001, tests showed the presence of what are called “non-acute coliform bacteria” in some water samples.

“Those are bacteria that are not going to hurt you, but if you are seeing them, there may be something in the system that could lead to the presence of harmful bacteria,” Witt said. “It’s a yellow flag.”

As a result of those alerts, the city undertook a two-year study to determine how the system ought to be improved.

The plan includes an ozone pre-treatment for one well that will enhance the benefits from the subsequent chlorine treatment; better preventive maintenance, which means adding one additional utility worker; enhancing well output through new equipment or possibly drilling one new well; overcoming the areas of inadequate pressure through equipment upgrades; and eventually replacing some of the water pipes themselves.

Total cost increases escalate from $231,000 in the year 2003 to an estimated $672,000 in 2007.

To pay for the 2007 cost increases, rates will have to increase by an average of 54 percent over current rates, according to a financial consultant’s study.

The city proposes to reach that total increase in five steps – a 20 percent jump in 2003, an additional 11 percent hike in 2004, then three additional yearly increases in the range of 5 percent.

Those projected rate increases assume that the city can tap the statewide Public Works Trust Fund for its exceptionally low-interest loans, city Finance Director Ralph Eells said.

If the city puts down 10 percent of an approved project’s cost, the interest on the remaining 90 percent loaned by PWTF is 3 percent, Eells said.

If the city could put up 30 percent, interest would drop to 1 percent.

“We don’t want to require rates to increase any more than they have to,” Eells said, “so we’re paying for the cost of bringing the system up to regulatory standards using the cheapest possible source of funds.”

The rate any given user will pay depends on both the size of their water line and their actual consumption, Eells said, and is designed to encourage conservation.

“Our residential customers pay a low charge for a little water, but the charge increases rapidly for greater consumption,” he said. “With commercial and industrial users, since it goes to their bottom line, we assume that they have an adequate incentive to conserve.”

The water system originally served incorporated Winslow. It has since been expanded to serve the south side of Fletcher Bay, where some of the wells are located, a portion of the area along New Brooklyn Road, as well as Rockaway Beach.

The system has just over 2,000 connections, some of which serve multiple dwelling units.

Because Rockaway is more expensive to serve, the consultant is recommending that those customers pay a flat 1.5 times the Winslow rate.

“That’s a fairness issue,” Eells said. “We have had a situation where some of the more well-to-do customers on the system are being subsidized by some of the least well-off.”

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