Opinion

Water utility should stay put | Guest Column | Sept. 23

Like many of you, I’m a taxpayer and a utility ratepayer on Bainbridge Island, and, as your at-large City Council member, I’ve got good news about our city’s water utility.

This month, the council reduced Winslow water rates by 34 percent, which will save 2,330 water customers about $750,000 each year – about $320 annually per customer.

Furthermore, the council asked the citizen volunteers on our Utility Advisory Committee (UAC) to consider a further rate reduction soon.

I’m in favor of a second-step reduction – 45 percent in all – which independent experts report is achievable.

The rate reduction is the latest in a series of financial and management improvements since 2009 when the city appointed citizen experts to a new UAC. I’ve served as a council liaison to the UAC ever since. Here are some accomplishments:

• As UAC recommended in 2009, we froze water rates and kept them flat until reducing them this month. This rate reduction was made possible by the appeals court rejecting the Ratepayer Alliance lawsuit that had blocked the city’s utility financing for 18 months, and our persuading Moody’s of the city’s improved finances.

• We’ve worked to achieve efficiencies, reducing utility staff from 10.2 (FTE) in 2009, to 7.5 in 2010 and to 6.5 this year. We’ve reduced operating expenses by one-fourth. Our excellent city manager, hired June 2010, says we can further reduce utility staffing to 4.5 next year.

• To the extent that water revenue exceeded annual utility costs, we’ve put the extra dollars into the water fund’s separate account, where those multi-million dollar reserves will cover the next five to six years of infrastructure improvements without debt.

Amidst these sustainable finances and management efficiencies of our new council-manager form of government, we continue to hear skepticism from some who’d rather fight over the past, rather than work constructively going forward.

Last Friday’s guest column was written by Dick Allen of the mostly anonymous Ratepayers Alliance group that filed a lawsuit against the city in April 2009.

He speaks for a lawsuit that has already cost our community nearly $400,000 in legal costs and has nearly drove the sewer utility to insolvency, thereby preventing the burying of electric wires on Winslow Way and which lost twice in trial and appeals court on the theory that our sewer plant upgrade financing should be stopped.

And now Dick says we should give away our water utility at a zero purchase price to a county-wide government entity (KPUD) where our community has no one on the board.

This month’s report of independent experts shows that our city can run the utility next year at a lower cost to ratepayers than KPUD.

Furthermore, giving away the water utility to KPUD could hurt Winslow ratepayers by making operations of our sister sewer utility less efficient – and no agency is offering to take over our sewer utility.

Please take a new look at what the city is achieving lately, and don’t be misled by the claims of a group that seems to want to drive our community’s policies by threatening more years of costly litigation expenses, rather than by collaboratively engaging in an open public process with the rest of us.

Barry Peters is the city’s at-large council member and is currently running for reelection.

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