Last week's meeting of the Klickitat Public Utility District Commissioners brought dire news for the PUD's water/wastewater customers.
On June 10, the PUD's Board of Commissioners approved substantial rate increases for combined water/wastewater rates. The increases will show up on all bills issued after July 1.
The rate hike is "not to exceed three percent of [combined] median household income" within each community.
According to PUD General Manager Brian Skeahan, the median income of the respective communities' residents is based on data from PUD surveys as well as data from state and federal sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although three percent does not sound like a significant increase, the actual dollar amount of the increase works out to be much more than three percent. That's because the increase is three percent of the "median income," not three percent of a customer's current bill.
For example, in the projected rate increases the PUD plan calls for, Lyle customers will see an increase in their sewer bills that equal 173 percent of what they now pay: Currently, Lyle residents pay $20 per month, and it's going to $54.59 as of July 1. Lyle's water bill, meanwhile, will be going up 24 percent, from $25 a month to $31.08.
Similarly, Klickitat's sewer rates will go from $31 a month to $82.01, a 165 percent hike. Klickitat's water will go up 22 percent, from $48 to $58.45.
Barbara Sexton, president of the Lyle Community Council, said she was deeply concerned about the PUD's projected rate increases.
"I don't know what people are going to do," Sexton said.
Sexton said the increases were so severe because of the median income figures.
"They are saying we shall be paying a certain percentage of median income, and everybody's way below that so the rates go way up," she explained. "I don't know why it's so bad all of a sudden."
Sexton added that she plans to meet soon with Marie Davis, president of the Klickitat Community Council, in an effort to figure out a solution.
Projected rate increases in the other communities affected broke down this way:
Glenwood average monthly water rate, current: $31; after the increase: $39.28, a 27 percent jump.
Glenwood average monthly sewer rate, current: $27; after the increase: $41.11, a 52 percent jump.
Wishram average monthly water rate, current: $36; after the increase: $42.49, an 18 percent jump.
Wishram average monthly sewer rate, current: $25; after the increase: $67.86, a 171 percent jump.
Ponderosa Park average monthly water rate, current: $25; after the increase: $33.70, a 35 percent jump.
PUD Commissioner Dan Gunkel, in a prepared statement, said he understood the rate hikes would be unpopular.
"A three percent combined water/sewer bill is considered by many to be toward the top of the range of affordability," said Gunkel. "We are fully aware that water/wastewater rate increases have been coming for some time. We realize the economic conditions in the county are not good, and are certainly taking that into consideration in making our decisions."
Skeahan warned the PUD board members that the forthcoming increases will not necessarily solve cost problems over the long term. On June 16, he suggested that the increased rates were not going to cover expenses.
"In some cases, the recommendations [for increases] were clearly higher," Skeahan said. "If the assumptions are in fact what happens, more increases will be needed."
Skeahan explained that the planned rate increases were based on getting roughly half of the plant's costs covered by grants. If more grants come through, the need for rate increases would go down.
Before voting for the increases, the PUD hosted a rate workshop at its Goldendale office, and invited community council members from Klickitat, Wishram, Glenwood, Lyle, and Ponderosa Park to participate. Only eight people showed up for the workshop, and only three local communities were represented: Lyle, Klickitat, and Ponderosa Park (a community about 10 miles north of Goldendale). Glenwood and Wishram had no representatives present.
"We did not have the turnout we need to have," Skeahan said.
Sexton said it was unfortunate so few people turned out for the PUD's rate workshop.
"Representatives from Glenwood and Wishram were not there, and I'm not even sure they are aware of this," she said. "People in the community need to get involved so they are aware and can take a stand. There is very much apathy."
Skeahan said he wondered why the Klickitat County Commissioners did not provide more landfill money to help with important infrastructure projects such as this. He also wondered why more citizens did not question county government on this issue.
"Frankly, we're once again raising the issue of the county's use of landfill dollars. We question why there are no dollars available to spend on these infrastructure improvements," Skeahan said. "We think you need to go to the County Commissioners and ask for help."
Skeahan also pointed out that the county has invested more than $10 million into the new Dallesport wastewater treatment facilities, yet is doing "almost nothing" to help other communities with their projects.
Klickitat County Commission Chair Ray Thayer said he hasn't heard any specific discussions about the county helping the PUD, but he noted that the county has helped.
"We have done quite a bit," Thayer explained. "Especially in Klickitat, we've done quite a bit there already."
Thayer added that Dallesport was a special case.
"I was in Dallesport in the flood of 1996, and when you see raw sewage running down the ditch lines, there needs to be something done. That was a big part of it. And another big part was putting in the infrastructure to the Port of Klickitat to accommodate businesses, so we can get something going in Dallesport. My priority is getting jobs."
"The county might step up more than they have. We're not talking about them paying for the whole thing," Skeahan said. "But if citizens are happy with $10-$12 million going to Dallesport and a couple hundred thousand to their communities, that's fine."
Thayer responded that these infrastructure needs were primarily the responsibility of the PUD.
"It's the cost of doing business," Thayer said. "I live in the county and have a well. When the pump goes out, I have to replace it."
Thayer added that what the PUD is going through is happening all around the region.
"I read the Yakima paper, and all these communities are doing the same thing. They tried to keep rates low, and there was nothing built up in funds to make improvements and do what they need to do," he said.
Sexton said she plans to invite the PUD officials to an upcoming meeting of the Lyle Community Council so they can explain why the increases are needed.
"I'm sure we'll pack the halls," she said.