Cityproposes 9 percent sewer rate hike in 2008

Published on Thu, Nov 29, 2007 by ara Nelson

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City proposes 9 percent sewer rate hike in 2008

By Tara Nelson

Blaine residents can expect their monthly sewer charges to increase again next year, making Blaine wastewater rates the highest in the county.

In their regular meeting Monday, Blaine public works director Steve Banham told Blaine City Council members that, if approved in their next meeting, ratepayers can expect a 9 percent increase starting January 2008, bringing their monthly bill from $59.80 to $65.19.

The general facilities fee (GFF), which is charged to new users when they connect to city sewer lines, will also be increased from $5,316 in 2007 to $5,794 in 2008.

The rate adjustment is part of a series of planned increases to fund the construction of the city’s proposed Lighthouse Point, a $32 million water reclamation facility slated for the west end of the park on Marine Drive. The rate schedule was determined with help from independent consulting firm FCS Group and will peak at about $84 per month for residential users in 2012.“We have, for the last four years, been putting together a rate model with the help of FCS,” Banham said. “Based on that, we started increasing our rates in small steps toward what we knew would be the ultimate rate.”

At the same time, Banham said he wants to increase the volume allowance for non-residential users to help address equity issues between low- and high-volume commercial and industrial users. This, he said, would keep costs down for commercial customers that use little volume.

And while proposed residential rates may seem high, Banham said it’s only a matter of time before other municipalities with aging facilities also increase their rates.

The city of Carnation, which recently constructed a new wastewater treatment facility, for example, charges nearly $90 per month for residential users. And the city of Bellingham recently proposed to increase sewer rates as much as 46 percent in the next year.

“A lot of people are living off an increasingly limited capacity of plants that were built long ago and they are enjoying low rates as a result,” he said. “But at some point those communities will require capital facilities improvements. Our current plant on the Semiahmoo spit is 28 years old and is already wearing out. It also does not have the capacity to serve our growing community and the site cannot be expanded because of archeological issues.”

He added that Blaine sewer rates, when combined with fees for water, average on par with other Whatcom County municipalities.
City work crews will begin construction in spring of 2008 and the facility is expected to begin partial operations by summer of 2010. Banham said the scope of operation would later be expanded to serve Semiahmoo in 2011.

The project will include a new 400,000-gallon storage tank to alleviate insufficient capacity of the existing tank and a historic replica of the historic Semiahmoo Lighthouse, designed by Blaine resident and former planning commissioner Brad O’Neill.

The facility is expected to help the city of Blaine reduce wastewater overflows during rainy seasons, help protect local shellfish beds and conserve water by creating as much as 350,000 gallons of high-quality effluent that can be used for irrigation and industry, such as with the Semiahmoo Golf Course, the city’s largest user of water.

Crews have already completed the first phase – a wastewater detention tank under Marine Drive.

Future increases
Subsequent increases in 2009 through 2012 will depend on a number of factors including population growth, construction cost increases and the availability of grant funding for the city’s planned wastewater treatment facility on Marine Drive, according to a review by FCS Group, a utility rate and finance consulting firm in Redmond.

Of those factors, growth would have the most significant impact on rates as a higher growth rate will allow public works to divide the cost among a larger population base and reduce the cost to the average ratepayer.

With the city’s anticipated 3 percent growth rate, for example, monthly sewer rates would increase from $56.14 in 2006 to $83.64 in 2012.
A 4 percent growth rate, meanwhile, would raise monthly sewer rates to $75.56 in 2012, while a 2 percent growth rate would increase sewer rates to $94.44 in 2012.

Low-income assistance
Banham said the city still offers a low-income assistance program to help qualifying residents with their utility bills. Those include seniors or disabled individuals who live on a fixed income and are able to demonstrate hardship.

For more information, call 332-8311. Other local financial assistance programs for low-income residents include the Opportunity Council in Bellingham at 734-5121 and the Blaine Community Assistance program at 392-8484.