Base water rates will soon be cut for all customers served by the city of White Salmon's water system, with especially large reductions for those living outside the White Salmon city limits.
The biggest change with the city's new approach is that the hefty surcharge on water customers living outside the city limits will be eliminated.
"I don't know how that will be perceived," said Mike Wellman, director of the White Salmon Public Works Department. "It's true, those customers are not paying taxes into the city, but the fact is, water and sewer systems are mandated by state law to be based on the cost of service. I can see having those in the county paying a bigger hookup fee up front, but once that's done, they should pay the same amount -- just like the PUD does it."
For in-city customers, the base water rate will fall by $2 per month, going from $41 to $39.
For those outside the city limits, the base rate will drop by $18.40 -- from $57.40 per month to $39.
There is a possible catch to the base rate reductions, however: In a bid to encourage water conservation, the new billing process will focus more on how much water is used.
The city's previous water billing allowed residential customers up to 5,000 gallons a month for the base rate. That has been changed. Effective with the new water ordinance, customers will pay $1 per 1,000 gallons used per month up to the first 3,000 gallons. Beyond that, customers will pay $2 per 1,000 gallons "or part thereof."
Wellman pointed out that 3,000 gallons equals about 100 gallons of use per day.
"This will be a learning process as people start getting their bills," he explained. "If you have people sprinkling their lawns a lot, their bills are going to go up."
The reduction in the base rate was possible partly because of another major change: The city will no longer allow those with water meters to avoid paying for them. Previously, those with a water meter could call City Hall and have the meter turned off and pay nothing at all. When the city's new water ordinance becomes effective in about a month, those with a water meter will have to pay the flat $39 per month charge, regardless of whether water is being used.
Wellman said that was fair.
"We don't want our existing customers to subsidize new customers. My analysis is, those not paying for inactive meters are not paying their fair share," Wellman explained.
"If you have a meter, you're going to be charged for the meter you have," added Mayor David Poucher. "Basically, not to charge for them would be a gift of public property. If you go on vacation, you still owe on your VISA bill; you don't leave it for someone else to pay."
By adding the customers with "inactive" meters who previously did not have to pay, the city will be pulling in an additional $9,000 per month in revenue, thus reducing overall system costs to all customers.
Council member Richard Marx, who chairs the city's water/wastewater committee, said there are currently about 240 customers with inactive water meters. Marx said it was wrong to allow some people to hold onto water meters and not pay anything into the system.
"A water user is somebody who has a water meter in the ground, whether they are using it or not," Marx said. "This will bring in over $9,000 a month -- that's how much the city has been losing. The rates could be lowered because now everybody is paying. I've been asking for that for two years. If you want to keep your meters, it's time to start paying."
Wellman pointed out that there could be another benefit to charging people for their inactive meters.
"We could have people come in and say, `hey, I don't want to pay by the month, I'm going to turn the meter in,'" Wellman explained. "And we still have 150 people on a waiting list for water meters."
Wellman said the end result of the billing changes may not result in much of a difference in monthly bills.
"If you're a normal customers using a modest amount of water, you'll pay about the same. If you're using a lot of water, you'll pay more than you did," Wellman said.
Wellman said he believed promoting conservation is a wise approach for the city.
"The fact is, water is a very precious commodity," he said. "If people are conserving, their rates will go down. We've set rates to where it discourages people from using a lot of water."
Wellman added that White Salmon City Hall will soon begin providing information for people who want to conserve, and to help people reduce their water bills.
"I'd like to see us promote low-use fixtures, and there are options like new grasses, and drip irrigation systems, and we'll see what the city can do to help citizens reduce their usage," Wellman said. "If we can get people to conserve 20 percent, we might be able to sell water hookups. It would give us another 170 hookups just by using half of the water we currently use."
Poucher and Wellman pointed to a new mixture of grass seed, called "water warden," that conserves water.
"It uses about one-quarter of the water that standard grasses use, and the grass looks just as good, with nice blade thickness," said Poucher.
"Look at the Hood River Library, for example," Wellman added. "They water once a month, with one inch of water. That's all you need once the grass is established. You don't need an automatic sprinkler watering every night."
Wellman said he would work with large water users to help them cut their bills.
"We are trying to work with the school district. We don't want to hit them hard on irrigation. Maybe it would pay them to get water warden installed on their ballfields," he said. "Irrigation with drinking water doesn't make sense, because you have to go through all those health standards."
The City Council voted 4-1 to approve the changes, with councilor Timi Keene opposed.
Marx said he believed the changes were necessary.
"This has been a long time coming," Marx said. "I'm happy everybody is on the same playing field and there is no favoritism any more."
Keene said she believed the citizens deserved to have more time to discuss and consider the ramifications of the new water rate structure.
"I am very supportive of a usage-based utility rate structure," Keene explained. "But to not have informed the public or council of the proposed rates until 10 minutes before a council vote is unconscionable. Full disclosure of the new rates should have been made during the public hearing two weeks earlier; instead, the public received a smoke and mirrors presentation that left them wondering whether they were paying more, less, or the same. I could not support that."
Marx said he didn't understand why anyone would want to put the decision on the new rates on hold, noting that the base rates would be going down for everyone.
"It's a no-brainer. How could you say no to that? It's promoting conservation," Marx said. "This needed to happen, and it didn't need to be stalled one more meeting."
Wellman noted that the city is not yet through revising its water ordinances.
"We still have to do hookup fees, " he said.
Poucher added that the new water rates would not necessarily be permanent.
"Let's look at how the rates are working for a year, and then come back and recalculate," Poucher said. "It's not static. It's dynamic, it changes year to year. A fee structure should be adjusted yearly."
The new rates are expected to show up on bills mailed at the end of March.