Opinion

It’s time for city to put its ratepayers first | Guest Column | Sept. 16

If you are fortunate enough to get your water from the Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD) or from South Bainbridge Water, you may be surprised that those who get water from the City of Bainbridge Island (COBI) pay twice as much as you do.

When you factor in that the COBI charges them an additional 6 percent utility tax, the result is conclusive that you are indeed fortunate.

Many municipalities that provide utility service frequently siphon off a portion of utility fees to fund non-utility related government activities.

COBI is no different. Contrary to a state law requirement that water rates be “just, fair, reasonable and sufficient,” COBI has overcharged 2,200 water utility ratepayers for years, resulting in a $4.8 million surplus (more on this later).

For example, as recently as 2009, the city charged all or part of the salaries of 82 workers to water, sewer and storm water management.

That was the equivalent of 33 full-time employees (FTEs). Such dipping into the utility funds gets to be an addiction.

Following a city request, Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD) delivered a firm, unambiguous proposal in August 2010 to take over the city’s water system and cut the water rates in half.

KPUD is the largest water purveyor in Kitsap County with more than 50,000 customers, and has served the north end for eight years.  An easy decision, right?  Not so.

As is customary, the city hired a consultant for about $100,000, a fee it charged to the water fund. The consultant was directed to prepare an independent study and advised the city on such a transfer. The final report was a whitewash of the city’s ineptitude that concluded that it could provide service at a competitive cost if it cut the FTE employee count from the 2009 level of 10.6 to 3.9.

Could the city do this? Not realistically, and City Manager Brenda Bauer said that the city could not provide the same level of service with fewer than 4.5 FTEs. Not mentioned was the fact that the city, with 4.5 FTEs still could not provide service comparable to KPUD.

When the figures are examined, it appears the reduction in rates will bring in $36 per month, but the cost is at least $48 per month.

How can the city do this? Remember the $4.8 million? That is just like tapping your savings each month to augment your cash flow.

The city claims more of the fund is needed for some water-related capital projects, but even the city’s internal memos suggest that the limited growth for the water system does not justify these at this time.

Notables such as Barry Peters, Andy Maron and Alice Tawresey have tried to distract the community from the real issue of utility fees and value for this small group of ratepayers by arguing that the city would lose control over growth and a valued resource. Nonsense. Growth is determined by zoning and planning initiatives, not water.

These individuals and others would have us believe this is the beginning of the end for city home rule and its charter. Not so.

Communities routinely contract services they’re not able to provide efficiently, including water utilities. Plus, domestic water belongs to the state, not the city. And state law requires that the utility be run for the benefit of its ratepayers, not the city.

Urged by Peters, the council recently passed a rate reduction for the city water system that should have been done years ago. Now it’s election time and we find him all for the ratepayers, but offering little of substance. By calculations, there is more than $2.7 million in the water fund that could be refunded to the ratepayers at $1,100 per meter.

Rather than settle for a mere $20 a month reduction, surplus monies should be returned to ratepayers and the funds should not be spent on projects to help further public works.

COBI has had the utility for 20 years and grossly mismanaged it. Water utility ratepayers have waited long enough. It’s long past time for the city to stop making excuses.

What if you were one of the water users in the north or south end and you awoke one morning to find that the city was your new water purveyor? Probably not a good feeling.

It is time to put the 2,200 city ratepayers first, not the city.

Dick Allen is president of the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance, which has a pending lawsuit against the city regarding misuse  of ratepayer funds.

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