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Skepticism Greets City's Idea Of A Switch To Monthly Billings

Customers express opposition

A proposal to make White Salmon's utility billings monthly was designed to make payments easier to swallow for the city's customers. However, all the customers who showed up at last week's council meeting to discuss the idea expressed opposition.

At the March 2 meeting of the White Salmon City Council, the council considered a plan to implement monthly water, wastewater, and garbage billings. Currently, the bills are sent out every two months.

In a public hearing to take comment on the proposal, several citizens expressed opposition to the plan.

"What is the advantage to the ratepayer?" asked Michael Morneault. "The advantage is nil. People have the ability to pay their bills over two months now."

Morneault explained that citizens could opt to pay half of their bill one month and the other half the next month without a penalty.

Shirley Cox, a city resident who serves on White Salmon's budget committee, also questioned how the switch would help.

"What is the benefit to the city?" asked Cox. "The only benefit is to change the cash flows to the city. It doesn't increase the cash flow. Is cash flow in such dire straights that we need to change this?"

Morneault suggested dividing the city in half for billing purposes as an alternative way to smooth the city's cash flow.

"Read half the meters one month and the other half the next month. Then there won't be an increase in postage. I propose that for consideration by the council," he said.

Richard Marx, a member of the City Council, said he believed changing to monthly billings would add costs.

Marx pointed out that a staff recommendation called for hiring students or senior citizens to help read water meters if the change to monthly billings is made.

"We spent thousands of dollars to get touch-read meters, to be able to read them quicker," he explained. "Now, if we go to monthly billings, we're talking about hiring a subcontractor to read them. To me that seems crazy. I don't see it as an advantage. We're not getting ahead if we have to hire."

Council member Penny White Morris pointed out that the primary impetus for the idea was to give residents smaller bills to pay.

"This is designed to help the customers, by not having one lump sum to pay," explained Morris. "It makes it easier for them by breaking it down."

But Ron Calvin, a White Salmon utility customer, said the drawbacks outweighed any advantages.

"If you're mailing out twice as many envelopes, there is a real extra time expenditure. With an extra 1,400 mailings, it takes time as well as doubling the costs," Calvin said.

Another citizen, Timi Keene, asked the council members if they had been provided with a cost breakdown for the billing plan.

"Do you have any numbers with which to base a decision on?" Keene asked. "That's extremely important in terms of dealing with the budget issues we have now."

Cox noted that the city could actually lose revenue with a switch to monthly, because the city takes in approximately $6,000 per year in customer late fees.

"It costs a lot of money to switch to monthly billings. If I understand correctly, it costs $2,197 a month for postage and printing, so double that -- plus the loss of $6,000 in delinquent fees," Cox explained. "That has to be made up somewhere. Are we going to pass higher rates on to the public? You bet that's coming next. When you start crunching, these are real numbers not budgeted for."

Council member Susan Gookin suggested tabling the proposal for two weeks so more information could be gained.

"I think reviewing the entire thing will take longer than two weeks," responded councilor Susan Benedict, who suggested waiting a month.

With a 5-0 vote, the council agreed to push the decision to the April 6 meeting.

On Friday, Mayor Linda Jones said it was obvious more information was needed.

"Maybe we'll have a work session to go over pros and cons at length," Jones said. "A little further discussion is in order."

Jones defended the motivation behind the proposed billing change.

"To me, the decision to bring this to the table was in view of people saying it was difficult to pay their water bill because it is high," Jones explained. "We thought it would be less of a hardship to pay less every month. But with the cost of the switch, we'll have to look a little more at it and discuss our options."

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