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Don't Ask For Bailout

Editorial for Nov. 29

How did the city of White Salmon miscalculate expenses for its new water system to the tune of $240,000 a year?

It's pretty difficult to imagine. The city hires engineers, consultants, and analysts -- and presumably they are professionals at what they do -- but it's pretty clear they all failed miserably. Either that, or the information they were given to work with was totally inaccurate.

In any case, someone screwed up big time.

The result for the consumer, in this case all the water customers served by the city of White Salmon, looks like it's going to be a huge increase on water bills starting at the beginning of 2002.

Based on a preliminary vote (3-2) by the city's Committee on Municipal Budget, everyone is going to get another $6 added to their water bills. By the way, a $2 increase starting in 2002 was already planned, so in effect the bills will be going up $8 a month at the start of the new year.

Put this in perspective: In 1999, the basic rate for water service in the city limits of White Salmon was $17. The base rate was $23.80 for those outside the city limits. If these newest increases are given the green light, it means the base rate will have skyrocketed from $17 in 1999 to $35 (within city limits) in 2002. That represents a 105.8 percent increase over three years. Those outside the city limits will have seen a jump from $23.80 to $46.80 -- a 96.6 percent increase.

That's a pretty stunning turn of events in three years. And those figures don't even include increased costs for those who use more than the base water allowance of 5,000 gallons a month. Those rates are slated to go up by 30 percent.

Further, new residential water hookups will go from $1,500 to $3,750 -- a 150 percent hike.

The failure of planners to more accurately analyze the costs -- including interest payments and debt service -- is a disgrace to the city.

Given that it is the city's process that failed, we hope the city will respond with more than just a "pay up or get your water cut off" response.

It's unfair to just dump the problem on citizens, especially those who live on fixed incomes. Yes, the city offers a rate break for seniors who qualify, with discounts on water bills based on annual income. But that doesn't help most customers.

City Council member Tim Stone pointed out recently that it would be more equitable if the city raised fees for new hookups instead of base rates. Stone reasoned, and it makes sense, that developers -- who have a choice -- could bear the brunt of the problem, rather than dumping it on those who live here and have paid into the system for years.

Stone's idea is a good one, and deserves further study from the city's planners.

White Salmon ought to look at more creative ways to raise most of this financial shortfall, instead of immediately asking local ratepayers to pay the tab. Cutbacks in other areas of city spending would be more appropriate than boosting the water bills of citizens. Even pay cuts for top city officials might be worth considering, at least as a symbolic gesture, to help address the problem.

The next meeting of the White Salmon City Council comes on Dec. 5, 6 p.m., at the Park Center. It would be a good time for those affected by these decisions to make their views known.

JB

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