City Council eyes affordability of Port Angeles compared to similar Puget Sound cities

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The percentage of household income spent by Port Angeles residents on basic living expenses is the sixth highest of 15 other comparably sized Puget Sound cities, according to a recently released study.

Port Angeles residents pay on average 34.8 percent of their household income on housing costs, such as rent or mortgages, property taxes, sales taxes and utility payments, according to the study, completed by Seattle-based FCS Group under a $21,000 contract with the city.

This figure comes in just above average for the 15 other Western Washington cities, said Todd Chase, a senior project manager with FCS Group during a presentation to City Council members Aug. 5.

Tukwila highest

Tukwila topped the list, with those costs consuming on average 39.2 percent of its residents' household income, while Anacortes came in at the lowest with 28.1 percent.

The calculation was part of a larger analysis of the affordability of living in Port Angeles compared with the other 15 cities.

“The goal of this effort was to look at this from a family [income] perspective,” Chase said.

The study did not present an average income for Port Angeles residents.

The analysis looked at the combined impact of housing and utility costs on household, or family, income, Chase said, and teased out the impacts to utility bills of two large, state-mandated environmental cleanup projects currently underway by the city.

Those efforts are the cleanup study of Port Angeles Harbor and the roughly $40 million effort to reduce the amount of combined sewer overflow events that release untreated sewage and stormwater into the harbor during heavy rains.

In fall 2012, the city instituted a 30-month surcharge on residents' utility bills — between $4.15 and $4.50 monthly per household — to pay the city's share of the study, estimated to cost the city about $1.2 million.

Impact of cleanups

Byron Olson, Port Angeles' chief financial officer, said one of the goals of the analysis was to use it as a way to show to both state legislators and the state Department of Ecology the impacts that two mandated environmental cleanup projects are having on Port Angeles residents.

This, in turn, could help city officials make the case for additional financial assistance, Olson said.

“It's important we have this hard data when we sit down this fall with our local legislators to explain it and when we sit down with the Department of Ecology,” Olson said.

Mayor Dan Di Guilio agreed the study could help in this regard.

“Without having financial assistance, it makes it more difficult for the community to absorb those costs,” Di Guilio said.

Ecology has named the city, the Port of Port Angeles, Georgia-Pacific LLC, Nippon Paper Industries USA and forest services company Merrill & Ring as at least partially responsible for removing potentially harmful substances, such as heavy metals, found in the sediment lining the bottom of the western portion of Port Angeles Harbor.

After completing sediment study reports in 2008 and 2012, Ecology said the contaminants were the result of past industrial wood-processing activity and untreated stormwater and wastewater flowing into the harbor from the city's combined sewer outfalls.

Additionally, the city has instituted a surcharge of between $18 and $20 per month to pay for combined sewer overflow, or CSO, reduction effort.

Ecology has given the city until 2016 to reduce these overflows or face fines.

Other cities

The other 15 cities have similar population densities and land areas and must abide by similar state stormwater discharge requirements, Chase said.

The cities are Aberdeen, Anacortes, Arlington, Battle Ground, Bonney Lake, Camas, Centralia, Covington, Kenmore, Mill Creek, Monroe, Mukilteo, Oak Harbor, Tukwila and Tumwater.

No cities on the North Olympic Peninsula were chosen for the comparison because they did not meet all the criteria, Olson said.

“We aren't just competing against Sequim; we are also competing against the greater Puget Sound Area and what those cities have to offer,” said Olson, adding that the chosen cities were determined by city staff with FCS Group input.

“We thought the mix of cities is a good representation of those cities that we are competing against for business.”

Utility rates

When it comes to utility rates, the study showed the harbor study and CSO surcharges bumped up the monthly average Port Angeles resident's utility bill from $261, 11th highest among the 15 other cities, to fifth highest at $289, Chase said.

An “average” resident was determined to use 450 cubic feet of water, 450 cubic feet of wastewater and 1,300 kilowatt hours of electricity monthly and receive weekly garbage pickup.

The percentage of household income spent specifically on utility bills was not broken out in the study.

Outside of the two surcharges, Chase said the study showed Port Angeles utility rates were just about average compared with the other 15 cities.

“Your power rates and wastewater rates are fairly on the low end of the spectrum, your water's in the high end of the spectrum, and that's why overall, you end up kind of in the middle of the pack,” Chase said.

Chase said FCS staff also used U.S. Census information on average housing costs, percent of median income spent on housing costs for owners and renters, and average number of families below the poverty level to determine the affordability of housing in the 16 cities.

“[Port Angeles is] actually slightly better than average, a little more attainable than average, when you consider all these factors together,” Chase said.

The analysis also showed that the amount spent on items for which sales tax is charged, which mainly include non-food and gas purchases, in Port Angeles is roughly $1,000 less per year than the average of the 15 cities.

Household income low

Olson said this in part shows the median household income for Port Angeles is relatively low, which in turn shows a general need for more higher-paying family-wage jobs in the city.

Nathan West, the city's community and economic development director, said there are some businesses and properties in the city that could benefit from expanded city infrastructure capacity and potentially expand, bringing more jobs.

“It would be really important for us save up some funding so that we can move forward with some infrastructure improvements that support those businesses and those properties so that we can have those expansions,” West said during the meeting.

Deputy Mayor Patrick Downie said a strong retail base in which residents come to Port Angeles to buy things rather than city residents leaving to shop elsewhere is also important.

“We need to create a core of retailers and businesses that are here in the community [so] that we can encourage staying home, if you will,” Downie said.

“And it's a challenge.”

Last modified: August 20. 2014 7:25PM
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