Shouts of "Happy New Year!" may ring a little hollow for customers of Bingen's sewer system this holiday season.
With costs outpacing revenue, the Bingen City Council voted last week to significantly raise sewer rates for its customers, beginning on Jan. 1.
The unanimous vote on Dec. 3 means that sewer bills for the city's customers will be going up by $4 per month.
City officials said there was simply no choice.
"In 1998, we saw this coming. We knew the sewer fund was losing money," explained Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "We proposed a stepped rate schedule back then, but the council members cut back the proposed increases to about half of what was needed. Essentially, we've been operating in the red since then."
The rate increase the council approved last week represents an additional $3 per month hike over the $1 increase agreed to by a previous City Council.
Jan Brending, Bingen's city clerk, said the added $3 in monthly sewer billings would bring an additional $15,700 to the city's budget in 2003.
The current rate for sewer service in Bingen is $22 per month. It will go to $26 starting in January.
"This brings us into the black, but we're still not putting much into the reserve fund," Prigel said. "There is no money for capital improvements."
Prigel pointed out that the capital improvement fund for sewer services is still in trouble.
"The fund, which has been used to fix broken pipes and that type of thing, is diminishing," he said. "The sewer lines are getting old. There are probably sections of line that need to be replaced, but this increase doesn't even cover that."
Brending said the city is sensitive to the impact of the rate increase.
"It's important that our constituents understand, we do understand many people are on fixed incomes," Brending said. "We take it very seriously. There are a lot of retired people and lower income people here. Rate increases are always hard."
However, citizens attending the Dec. 3 council meeting said they didn't think the hike in sewer costs was fair.
"You're hitting us all at once again," said Bingen resident Tim Hearn.
"Why should we have to pay the same amount as a person with four kids and two adults in the house? We don't use anywhere near as much [utility services] as they do," added Marilyn Winter.
Prigel said he understood that point of view, but there was no way the city could take usage into account in its billing process.
"In practical terms, any way to address that issue would be very difficult," Prigel said.
According to Prigel, the key reason for the increase is to help pay off the cost of the new wastewater plant, which went into service in 1995.
"We have 15 years to repay a Public Works Trust Find loan," Prigel said. "There was a five-year deferral on beginning to repay the loan. It is to be paid off by 2015."
The loan totals $1.5 million, and Bingen is responsible to pay approximately $27,000 per year on that, with White Salmon paying the remainder.
"With this increase, we'll be meeting operating and maintenance costs and paying the debt service," Prigel said. "The only additional increases I would see after this would be cost of living, or if there is a major project we see coming."
Council members wanted to make sure that the increase would do what it was expected to do before approving the boost.
"This increase is the minimum we need to get out of the red, is that correct?" asked councilor Jeanette Fentie.
Prigel assured her it was.
"I would support this," said councilor Laura Mann. "We need to put our budget where it's taking care of itself."
The new sewer billing rate was subsequently approved with a 4-0 vote.
"There went my keno money," joked Hearn.
Another Bingen utility service will also be going up slightly in 2003: The city's water customers currently pay $16.50 per month, and that rate -- due to a stepped increase agreed to years ago -- is scheduled to go to $17 in January.