4% water, sewer rate increase, 1% property tax hike voted by Sequim City Council

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM –– Water and sewer rates each will go up 4 percent in Sequim next year.

On a split vote as it approved the $55.3 million 2014 budget, the City Council opted to increase the rates.

Administrative Director Elray Konkel said the increase will amount to an additional $3 per month for the average user.

“I almost feel as an individual like somebody's reaching into my back pocket and taking the money out,” Councilman Dennis Smith said.

“All these things are not just $3.”

Smith voted with Councilmen Erik Erichsen and Ted Miller against the 4 percent increase.

Councilwomen Laura Dubois, Candace Pratt and Genaveve Starr and Mayor Ken Hays voted to pass the increase.

The base rate for water service for a single-family home will rise from $22.22 per month to $23.11 per month. The base rate for sewer service will rise from $58.42 per month to $60.76 per month.

“Certainly I can afford it, but that doesn't make it feel better because I worry about the guy next door or the guy down the street,” Smith said. “Can he afford it?”

“It isn't just $3; it's a lot more than that,” said Erichsen, who also was the sole vote against a 1 percent increase in the city's property tax levy, an amount permitted annually by the state.

With the $3-a-month increase in utility rates and an estimated $4 annual increase from the property tax hike, City Manager Steve Burkett said the average citizen would pay $40 more to the city next year.

Burkett, though, noted that other taxing districts also have raised their taxes and fees.

“I hear what you're saying . . . about the three bucks,” Burkett said. “All of the taxing districts look at it that way, and they all say they're just a small part of it.”

City staff, however, said it needs the additional revenue to keep water and sewer infrastructure in shape.

A study earlier this year found the city needs $11 million in improvements to its water system and $15 million to the sewer system by 2032.

“I think it's frankly irresponsible not to admit that our costs are going up and we have aging infrastructure,” Hays said.

A special subcommittee of Hays, Dubois and Starr met with city public works staff earlier this fall to study water and sewer rates.

That committee, Hays said, agreed with an earlier study that the city needs to increase rates to keep pace with maintenance costs.

The increased rates will generate an additional $120,000 in operating revenue for the sewer fund — a total of $3.53 million— and $70,000 for the water fund — a total of $1.78 million, Konkel said.

While part of the committee's goal was to figure how to even costs paid by all classes of water and sewer users, they felt they did not have enough time to restructure those different rates and suggested the 4 percent across-the-board increase for next year to get the revenue while the city takes next year to restructure its rates.

“These rate structure changes for equity are very complex,” Dubois said.

Some users could see their rates decrease while others would see an increase of as much as 150 percent to make the charges more even, Public Works Director Paul Haines said.

“As a monopoly, I think it's our job to help people understand a bit before we work into it,” Haines said.

Miller suggested a 2.5 percent increase to the rates to keep pace with the inflation costs the city used to determine other budget items.

“It would make more sense to set it at the rate of inflation,” Miller said. “The 2.5 percent increase should be just about automatic.”

Erichsen, though, noted that the incomes of many people who live in the city do not increase with inflation and suggested the council put the rates up to voters for a referendum.

The council passed the overall budget 6-1, with Erichsen voting against it as he criticized a $75,000 expenditure on charities.

Erichsen said the city should tighten up its spending since it is raising taxes and fees to citizens.

“We pay our bills. We go without something so we can meet the obligations we are facing,” he said.

The 1 percent tax hike would generate $13,437 in new revenue for the city, Konkel said.

Miller again brought up the 2.5 percent inflation rate.

“The question is are we going to give the citizens of Sequim a 1.5 percent tax cut or a 2.5 percent tax cut?” Miller asked.

The council unanimously passed a budget for the special transportation benefit district formed to administer the 0.2 percent transportation sales tax instituted last year.

The tax is expected to generate $543,000 next year.

The budget plans for spending city plans to use $100,000 for safety enhancement and for street maintenance and operations, $275,000 for improvements on Fir Street, $50,000 to engineer signals and roads, $25,000 to improve Etta Street and $25,000 to upgrade streetlights to LEDs.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 27. 2013 6:55PM
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