Mayor asks for quick action on water rate cuts

Winslow water utility customers may soon see a lighter water bill as the city council rushes through a possible rate cut.

But not all on the dais are convinced that acting hastily is appropriate or wise.

The council discussed the merits of cutting water utility rates at Wednesday’s meeting, one of many proposed changes to the utility suggested by Mayor Steve Bonkowski.

While Bonkowski also wants to pursue policy changes and update the city’s water system plan, he is pressing to make the rate cut happen sooner than later.

But not so fast, some council members said. Some questioned whether putting the rate cut on the fast track was a good idea.

Councilman Bob Scales also asked that all council members be present on any vote for rate changes. He said he wanted all viewpoints to be represented on the controversial issue.

“The water utility is not going to turn into a pumpkin if we wait until all council members can be present. It’s also good to give the community adequate notice,” Scales said.

“We are talking about making a major rate decision with no staff input, no expert input,” he added.

Bonkowski has also proposed a refund of $3 million from the utility’s reserve account to ratepayers, but said that he will wait until an update to the water plan is completed.

The combination of a rate cut and slashing the reserves caused some on the council to be wary of Bonkowski’s sweeping proposals.

“Drawing on (the reserve), and not refreshing it, while we don’t know what’s coming except that we have postponed infrastructure updates, makes me concerned,” said Councilwoman Anne Blair.

Bonkowski doesn’t know how much he will propose to cut water utility rates.

He previously proposed a 35 percent cut, but now plans to meet with the city manager to iron out the details before the week is out.

“It will be less than 35 percent, but probably more than 25 percent,” Bonkowski said.

Despite the lack of details, Bonkowski will likely have the votes he needs to get a rate cut next week.

Councilwoman Sarah Blossom — who was absent this week — will be present at the June 26 meeting and has historically supported Bonkowski’s water utility agenda. Councilman David Ward, along with Councilwoman Debbi Lester, have also sided with the mayor on water utility issues.

Bonkowski attempted to put the vote

on the June 26 agenda at Wednesday’s meeting,

but was deterred when Scales cited a governance rule that requires a vote to do so.

With a 3-3 vote Wednesday, Bonkowski was unable to place it on next week’s agenda.

Scales will also be absent next week.

With four votes of support present next week, Bonkowski will likely be able to place the item on the agenda at the start of the June 26 meeting.

“I will move next week to add it to the agenda,” Bonkowski said.

The council spent more than an hour-and-a-half debating the utility issue, leaving it far from washed up.

On one side of the debate is the view that rates should be cut in response to continued padding of the utility’s growing reserve account.

On the other hand, some council members contend that the reserve is large because the utility hasn’t acted on any needed capital projects in recent years.

The lack of clarity on the utility’s future has stalled many projects, and the money will be required to complete work or respond to any emergency the utility may face.

The view was not only present on the dais, but was echoed by ratepayers in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting.

Some customers noted that they would rather forgo a rate cut, and refund, now to be better prepared for future utility projects and emergencies.

Bonkowski’s refund would leave the reserve account with $2 million.

The refund, as Bonkowski has proposed, may not be a simple task.

City Manager Doug Schulze told the council that any refund should be done with the assistance of the state Attorney General’s Offices.

The city would have to justify each refund, Schulze added.

But Bonkowski maintains that utility rates are still too high, reserves are too fat, and he wants to act sooner than later.

Bonkowski said that by using practices from the Kitsap Public Utility District, the city currently has enough money saved up to run the utility for 30 years.

Bonkowski’s alterations to the utility are largely the result of his own research and number crunching. City staff had not seen his agenda until two weeks ago.

Schulze recommended that the council pursue an update to the city’s water system plan before restructuring the utility as Bonkowski proposes. An update is required at least every six years, and the water system was due for one in 2012. The city received an extension from the state, however.

Schulze said, however, that because the utility is financially healthy, many of Bonkowski’s aims could be achieved.

“Most water utilities across the country are struggling financially,” Schulze said, further noting that Bainbridge’s utility is rather fiscally healthy.

“Because of that, the proposed motions can be supported for a period of time, most likely years,” Schulze said.

Lester echoed Bonkowski’s rush to tackle the utility sooner than later. She said that the addition of $560,000 to the reserve account last year concerned her. She perceives it as an indication that utility rates are still too high.

“When I first started campaigning for this position this was the number one topic,” she said. “People were asking why water rates were so high.”

It’s still an issue that she runs into around Winslow. She recalled a recent conversation with a neighbor while on the ferry.

“They are three months behind on the utilities, they have a $700 bill for the utility,” Lester said. “We are pricing people off this island, in this downtown core.”

“It is time to adjust our rates to make this fair and make it right,” she said.

Water utility rates were previously cut in 2011 by 45 percent, making them competitive with surrounding utilities. The council planned to observe the water utility for 18 months to assess whether it could operate under the reduced rate.

Blair noted that if another 35 percent cut is enacted, then it would equal an 80 percent cut in rates within two years.

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