City needs to act in best interest of ratepayers | Guest Column | Oct. 14

Are you too growing weary of the campaign hyperbole and unending dialogue concerning the disposition of the city’s water utility? I’m a city utility ratepayer and I certainly am.

It’s been two years since the City approached Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD) for a proposal for taking over the city’s water and sewer utilities. KPUD responded with a compelling proposal to immediately take over the water utility and a long-range plan to attain authority to add sewer service to their charter.

The problem: not only is city water utility operating costs unconscionably high, but the city also relies on utility monies to subsidize island-wide governmental responsibilities and to balance its budget.

Yes, the city has reduced water utility staff levels over time. However, it took three years to even consider reducing water rates. And the city remains unwilling to consider refunds of the excessive accumulated reserves. Meanwhile, city operating costs are still higher than the KPUD’s.

Most recently, the decision concerning the disposition of the water utility was delayed pending the city’s Utility Business Advisors’ (UBA) Report. The advisors were retained to provide clarity on how such a transfer would happen, what would happen to any proceeds, including the $4.8 million in cash reserves, and determine the financial impacts on the general fund and other city utilities, responsibilities, etc.? Unfortunately the Report finally presented to council last month failed to address many of these essential issues.

Instead of concentrating on questions asked, the advisors concentrated on defining what cost basis, staffing levels and rates the city would need to adopt to become competitive. Unfortunately those conclusions are fatally flawed because they include neither an implementation plan nor a budget under which the projected results could be achieved.

In fact, when asked about their ability to operate within the recommended budget, staffing levels and long-term capital improvement budgets, the City responded that to do so would do the following: “require elimination of all preventative maintenance programs,” “have immediate and noticeable consequences to internal and external customers,” and that long-term capital needs could not be determined until the 2013 update to their Comprehensive Water System Plan.

The city’s water utility is not competitive and has no credible plan to become so. By contrast, KPUD is a local non-profit municipal utility with the authority and demonstrated ability to fulfill our needs. It has expressed a willingness to work with the city to accommodate a smooth transition and to apply its extensive experience in water resource management to aid the city in satisfying this and other governmental responsibilities.

KPUD already provides water service to over 1,750 households on Bainbridge, and island residents can continue to influence their goals and objectives through the commissioners we elect, not unlike our council.

However, unlike the council, waters commissioners’ responsibilities are specific to overseeing the water utility, acting as lead for coordinated water system planning and resource monitoring throughout Kitsap County, and extending wholesale broadband capabilities connecting rural populations and public agencies previously under-served.

The entire city operation will benefit from this experience while the ratepayers are assured a higher level of service for a lower monthly cost under the KPUD.

The city has had 20 years to get its affairs in order, and more than two years to evaluate a credible proposal. It’s time for our City Council to stop stalling, to act in the interest of the utility ratepayers once and for all, to take action and move on.

Arlene Buetow is a former director of North Bainbridge Water Co. and  vice chair to the city’s Utility Advisory Committee.

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