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Bainbridge City Council approves sewer surcharge
The City Council begrudgingly adopted a 111 percent surcharge Wednesday for sewer utility ratepayers to fund the final upgrades to the Waste Water Treatment Plant.
The council voted 5-2 (Bill Knobloch and Kim Brackett against, with Debbie Vancil out of the room during the vote) to adopt the short-term measure to pay for the $1.5 million needed to finish the treatment plant upgrades.
The surcharge became necessary after the city failed to obtain bond funding or loans for the final amount as a result of the lawsuit with the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance.
"We're down to our last and only choice," said Councilor Barry Peters. "It is my great hope that the Bainbridge Ratepayer Alliance will withdraw its appeal and save the ratepayers from having to pay a surcharge."
But a new possibility of funding the upgrades surfaced at the meeting.
City Attorney Paul McMurray told the council that Cashmere Valley Bank, the bank the city originally sought financing from, is willing to loan enough money to the city to finish the upgrades, if the ratepayers alliance agrees in writing not to file suit against the bank.
Interim Manager Lee Walton confirmed that the offer is being presented to attorneys for the ratepayers alliance.
Sally Adams, secretary for the alliance, declined to comment on whether or not the group would accept that offer.
Like the city, the council was determined to avoid this surcharge. Councilors suggested several possibilities, including stopping the project for 90 days, but they all had their consequences. Should the council have decided to stop the project, it would have cost about $100,000 a month, Finance Director Elray Konkel said.
But Vancil, who suggested the temporary stoppage, said the ratepayers shouldn't have to pay for the city's mistakes.
"We're in a circumstance that was not caused by the ratepayers, and now we're asking them to solve the problem, that's not fair," she said.
The surcharge will begin Jan. 1 if an alternative source of funding is not found by that time.
Knobloch said the surcharge has only come about because the council couldn't get the ratepayer lawsuit solved.
"This ordinance represents failure," he said. "It represents failure on the part of all of us. This is not the solution. There is no way I'll be part of this kind of surcharge on any ratepayer, considering the fact that we could have settled before. We could have been more proactive in finding a way to solve this disagreement with the ratepayers."
Should the city solve the ratepayer lawsuit or the treatment plant upgrades be finished, the ratepayers will begin to receive their money back.
Konkel said the money can't be returned in the form of direct refunds, but will instead be credited in the form of reduced rates. But refunding ratepayers will take longer than the surcharge lasts, Konkel said before the meeting.
"You won't be able to do it at 111 percent because it will create negative billage, so we probably won't be able to return it in the same time period," he said.
During the process, the city's Utility Advisory Committee was able to review the surcharge and suggested that it was a necessary evil.
"It is not in the best interest of the ratepayers to stop construction when it’s about 85 percent complete,” UAC chair Andy Maron told the council at its Nov. 9 meeting. “If you have to finish the plant, and you can’t fund it anyway else, yes, we do recommend you do a surcharge."