Rockaway folk irked by water rate hike

A proposal to jack up Winslow water rates by 54 percent over the next five years drew only mild reaction at a Monday public hearing, with the only questions being whether better conservation could blunt the increase.

But a plan to hike rates for Rockaway Beach customers by up to 150 percent of the Winslow rates drew heated opposition from residents there.

Rockaway homes have been on city water since the mid-1990s, when a well on the Wyckoff property was abandoned and a new one constructed by the city on Taylor Avenue.

“The city can’t have it both ways,” said Charles Hawk, Rockaway Beach resident. “Our system was essentially forced on us in 1996, and we paid all the costs of that. Now, Rockaway is being asked to help upgrade the Winslow system.”

To pay for needed upgrades to its water system, the city proposes rate hikes that would boost a typical bill from roughly $35 per month to almost $45 next year. Further increases would raise that cost to $58 per month by 2007.

Those rates would apply to the Winslow water system, which serves historic Winslow and a spur of land running west in the vicinity of High School Road to the south side of Fletcher Bay, where some of the system’s wells are located.

The system has some 2,000 connections, city Finance Director Ralph Eells said, and is entirely supported by user fees, without any general-fund tax money.

At the hearing before the Bainbridge Island City Council’s finance committee, no one spoke against any specific aspect of the Winslow increases, although Commodore resident Wayne Daley urged more conservation.

In response to questions from council member Debbie Vancil, city operations and maintenance supervisor Lance Newkirk said most of the proposed capital expenditures driving the rate hike are being made to accommodate projected population in Winslow, and have relatively little to do with the average volume each customer consumes each month.

Consultant Tracey Dunlap, who presented the case for the rate increase, said the same thing.

“Unfortunately, this is essentially a fixed-cost business,” she said. “Producing more or less water doesn’t change the costs very much.”

The rate multiple for Rockaway Beach was proposed because that system costs more to operate, according Eells said.

Eells had suggested that it was unfair for Winslow rate-payers to subsidize Rockaway customers. But Rockaway residents questioned the premise.

“Why is our service more expensive?” asked William Gilbert. “If we could hear and know that, this wouldn’t be so distasteful.”

Eells said he would review the numbers behind the suggested Rockaway rate multiple, and anticipated that the request would be adjusted downward.

“The multiple seems high to me,” he said. “One of the most basic accounting tests is to ask yourself whether the result makes sense, and I’m not sure this one does.”

The full council will consider the rate increase at its Dec. 11 meeting, then take a final vote at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The increases would become effective at the beginning of the year.

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