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Kill the utility surcharge

Editorial for Feb. 7, 2008

White Salmon Public Works Director Mike Wellman said something at a public meeting we never imagined we'd hear from a top city official. At the Jan. 16 City Council meeting, Wellman said the city's practice of charging those living outside the city limits more for water service was unfair.

"We've done it, but I don't think it's appropriate," Wellman said.

For as long as we can remember, White Salmon has added a 40 percent surcharge onto the utility bills of customers who happen to live outside the city's legal boundaries. The service is essentially the same, but the bills are sure different. In some areas, literally depending on what side of the street you live on, your monthly base rate residential water bill will be either $41 or $57.40.

Perhaps the city hopes to encourage more annexation requests by offering reduced prices, but the disparity is inherently unfair. We applaud Wellman's willingness to recognize that, and to consider ways to come up with a better system.

Mr. Wellman has been offering some creative thinking lately on ways to restructure utility bills for all the city's customers.

In addition to eliminating the obnoxious surcharge for those outside the city limits, he is suggesting that the city consider a smaller base rate for water, instead billing based primarily on the actual number of gallons of water a household or a business uses each month.

This is a sensible approach that will encourage conservation. Those using more water will pay more, but it gives those who minimize their usage a chance to save money. That is the way electricity bills work, and it is logical to set up water bills the same way.

With local and regional water shortages an increasing problem, it's wise to reward those who cut their consumption. Right now, residential customers are charged a flat fee tied to using 5,000 gallons per month -- regardless of how much water is actually used.

Another alteration Wellman is prodding the City Council to adopt is charging a fee for all water customers, whether they are actively using water or not.

Currently, for example, customers can simply have their water service turned off and leave town for eight months, and they pay no fee whatsoever. Also, those who have placed water meters and expect them to be ready to go whenever they finish building houses also pay nothing into the system. That's not right.

The water system infrastructure continues to need maintenance and repairs, and there are fixed monthly costs associated with supplying water to homes and businesses. For that reason, all customers should pay a fee to support the network.

Right now, inactive water customers are essentially being subsidized by the active customers, and the free ride has to end.

Wellman's plan calls for charging a reduced "standby" fee of about $39 per month for inactive customers, and this is a sensible proposal. While the precise amount to be charged can be tweaked, the costs should be shared by everyone who benefits from having an infrastructure in place that can supply water on demand.

Mr. Wellman has provided a wise blueprint for changes in the way the city handles its water billings. We urge the City Council to adopt his recommendations soon.



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