Council: Why the sticker shock in water, sewer rates?

Bainbridge Island City Councilmembers stood up for their constituents when they talked about the sticker shock of potential increases in water and sewer rates at a recent meeting.

They wanted to know why the huge increase was being suggested by city staff. The council will make a decision on the recommendations at an upcoming meeting.

Public Works director Chris Wierzbicki showed the council April 4 the need to raise water rates another 13.5% this year, to go along with a 10% inflation increase already approved, and then 25% in at least the following two years. Sewer rates would rise 10% then smaller amounts in following years.

When asked about the huge increase, Wierzbicki explained that from 2010-22 residents paid low rates, as they were not adjusted for inflation.

Even with the increase, this year’s average residential water bill would be $29.10, less than Port Orchard’s $49.88, Poulsbo’s $35.53 and Bremerton’s $33.76.

The council used reserves to keep rates low early on.

“This is what happens when different political forces make decisions,” Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said, adding this shows “how irresponsible we were.”

She said in 2011 there actually was a split vote on the council that led to a 30% reduction in rates. The council at the time borrowed money for the general fund, and when the community found out it filed a lawsuit. Even though it was legal, “to manage a utility for the ratepayer is not wise.”

City manager Blair King said BI likely would like to have small increases more often, rather than a “shock increase.” He said the same thing happened recently in BI with building fees, which had not been raised in years. We should “make sure we review fees every few years,” he said.

King said some cities don’t like to raise rates when they are doing well financially. “Ignoring rates is easier and more enjoyable, but at some point …” He said when capital projects come up, like the city’s new Winslow water tank that could cost up to $25 million, they wish they had that money in reserve.

Wierzbicki gave a number of reasons why more funds are needed. The water tank is first and foremost. He said years ago it was supposed to cost just $5 million, but that was underestimated. Then they found out a lot more work was needed. They have to extend the water main and install 10 pressure relief valves to make sure the flow is correct. Also, of course, there is inflation.

Away from the tank, more costs come with the aging overall system, with 100% of booster pumps, 60% of wells and 15% of mains past their useful life. Staffing also is low with three new employees needed, the presentation shows, adding it has six fewer workers than 17 years ago when work demands were less. Other costs include a 50% discount for low-income seniors and disabled customers, along with a tiered rate structure to incentivize conservation.

The city also is recommending an increase in costs to join the system. Commercial rates would go from $10,000 to $15,000; single family from $5,000 to $7,000; and multifamily from $32,000 to $45,000. That $7,125 average, up from $5,709, would still be less than Port Orchard at $12,740; but more than Bremerton at $6,680 and Poulsbo at $5,370.

To help ratepayers, reserves would be used to spread out increases over at least five years, Wierzbicki’s PowerPoint presentation says. The Utility Advisory Commission decided on this rate structure to provide balance and consistency, rather than focus only on new customers or those who received the cheap rates for so long.

Deputy mayor Jon Quitslund said he was concerned about the start-up fee, adding that additional costs only drives up the price of new housing. Councilmember Leslie Schneider said she would like to see ratepayers get a break who come up with innovative conservation systems.

King said those who use more water pay more, but Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said rates for those who overuse water should go up “so they feel it — to encourage conservation.” Hytopoulos said the system is unfair as those who use wells “can take whatever amount they want. We all draw the same aquifer.”

Sewer rates

Wierzbicki explained that sewer rates were not cut early on like water rates were, but they have remained steady so there still is a gap between revenue and expenses.

The recommended increases are for 10% this year, 7% next and 2% each year from 2025-27. The single-family rate would go from $94.28 to $105.20. That’s already higher than Poulsbo at $87.62; Port Orchard at $81.50; and Bremerton at $74.96.

Participation fees would go from $8,000 to $12,000 for single family; $5,000 to $8,000 for multifamily; and $8,000 to $12,000 for commercial. Those fees would vary depending on where you are on BI, but in most cases would be in line with Port Orchard and Poulsbo, but more than Bremerton.

The old age of the system, cost of maintaining the wastewater treatment plant and cost of Lovell sewer improvements are other expenses listed in the presentation. Sewer rates from 2010-22 also did not increase due to inflation. About 50% of pumps are past their useful life, treatment plant upgrades are needed, and the city is looking at benefits of wastewater reuse. The Ferncliff extension would cost $1.5 million and serve 78 current and future customers.

The city also is looking at year-round averaging for billing to make it more predictable for users.

Madison project

The council also received an update on the Madison Avenue project.

From Winslow Way to Wyatt Avenue there will be green-striped bike lanes and crossings. From Wyatt to High School Road sidewalks will be widened with raised bike lanes on the west side, while on the east side, there will be a protected street-level bike lane and sidewalk improvements. From High School to New Brooklyn Road, there will be raised bike lanes and more. Construction would begin in late summer.

“I’m really excited. I can’t wait to see this project done,” Councilmember Joe Deets said.

Schneider said she looks forward to the raised bike lanes, but wondered why it wasn’t happening on both sides of the street. When Wierzbicki explained that was because of cost, she responded that the project will show what they could do.

The public works director said improvements could be added in the future. He added that more improvements will be on the east side of the street because that’s where bicyclists will be going uphill, so it will be slower.

Wierzbicki said the city will be informing those along the Madison corridor, and work will be done to minimize the impact on them as much as possible.