Council moves along effort to cut water rates by 30 percent

Winslow’s water utility customers are one step closer to cheaper bills after the Bainbridge Island City Council moved along an ordinance to slash water rates by 30 percent.

After months of discussions over the future of the city’s water utility, the council moved on an ordinance to cut water rates by a 4-3 vote at its Wednesday meeting.

A final vote will be taken on Aug. 14.

The council also gave a thumbs up to a resolution that sets a policy that all city utilities will be managed for the benefit of customers.

Councilwomen Sarah Blossom and Debbi Lester, and Councilmen Steve Bonkowski and David Ward, voted to pass the two measures.

Others weren’t as keen on the proposals.

“We have a knee-jerk reaction by the council saying, ‘Let’s cut rates,’” said Councilman Bob Scales. “We spent a year looking at outsourcing the management of the water utility, and we’ve had minutes spent on this rate reduction.”

“I would have supported a rate adjustment that was supported on fact, not fiction,” he added. “I will continue to oppose this ordinance as long as it’s before us.”

Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos agreed, and Councilwoman Anne Blair also voted no.

“I think it is a flawed ordinance,” Blair said. “For that reason I would like to talk further about it.”

The other side of the dais countered with arguments heard during earlier meetings on the water utility; that the utility has amassed a considerable reserve — roughly $5 million — that is growing fatter off current water rates.

Even so, Hytopoulos noted that the city has not performed a rate analysis for the water utility.

She said that she won’t be on the council after this year, but warned her colleagues that they will likely revisit the rates in the future, and be forced to raise them.

“Why not do the process the right way?” Hytopoulos asked, adding that there was no rush and that a rate study could be conducted.

“The rate that is being collected is already in the middle range (of rates in the region),” she added.

If the rate reduction is approved, residential consumption rates for the first 500 cubic feet would fall from $1.55 to $1.09 per 100 cubic feet. That reduction trickles up the rate scale, all the way to consumption for more than 3,000 cubic feet, which would fall from $4.84 to $3.39 per 100 cubic feet.

Fixed residential rates would drop from $7.67 to $5.37 for a multi-family dwelling, and from $15.39 to $10.77 for a single-family home with a 1-inch connection.

The city bills water customers on two alternating bimonthly schedules. If the ordinance is approved, rates would first show up on the October and November billing cycles.

The resolution to operate the utilities for the benefit of customers hasn’t drawn as clear lines of division on the council.

Scales said the statement was vague, however, and asked his fellow council members what it specifically meant.

Bonkowski said the question had been raised in the past whether the utility should benefit ratepayers or the island as a whole. The water utility chiefly serves islanders in the downtown Winslow core.

Hytopoulos was wary of approving the resolution because it appeared to promote the “mantra” of the Ratepayers Alliance, a group that has sued the city in the past.

“If I were a member of the public, and I heard that this is what the council is doing, I would take it as an admission of guilt of abuse of the ratepayers,” she said.

Both efforts around the water utility were spearheaded by Bonkowski. They stem from a June 19 council meeting when Bonkowski presented six motions on water utility issues that included the rate cut and the policy statement.

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