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City Considers Charging Inactive Water Customers

Hearing set for Feb. 6

Mike Wellman, White Salmon's director of the Public Works Department, said the city needs to change the way it bills customers for utility services.

At issue is whether those with inactive water hookups and sewer line service should avoid paying any fee at all into the system.

"Our water-sewer ordinance has been more or less the same for a number of years now," Wellman said. "The concern is with those who have meters that have not been connected, whether they have the obligation to pay any charges."

Wellman pointed out that until now, those customers did not pay any charges if they were not actively using the service, including residents who turn the service off when they leave town for the winter, for example.

The city's attorney, Ken Woodrich, suggested that those customers should be charged.

"They should pay if there is a meter in place," Woodrich said. "The city has an obligation to the rest of its ratepayers to make sure everyone is contributing. My suggestion is, tighten the ordinance. Clarify who the users are and set a rate structure."

Wellman said he had outlined how much should be charged to those who are on the system but are not using water or sewer services either because they are out of town for several months a year and turn off the service, or because they have not yet turned on the service to a lot under construction.

At the Jan. 16 meeting of the White Salmon City Council, Wellman presented a chart to the council members. The chart showed what Wellman believed was a logical amount to charge based on eight "cost impact activities."

The following categories were listed:

For salaries, benefits, & training related to the water service, the county's cost per month is $14.22 for regular customers. Wellman proposed that inactive customers be given a 50 percent discount in that cost, meaning inactive users would pay $7.11 per month.

For materials & supplies, the cost is pegged at $3.24 per month for regular customers, and it would be 81 cents for standby (inactive) customers; for contractual services, the current cost is $9 for regular customers and would be $4.50 for standby; for utilities & phones, it's $5.68 for regular customers and would be $4.26 for standby; for building maintenance & insurance, $1.50 for regular customers and $1.50 standby; for external taxes, $4.21 for regular customers and $2.11 standby; for debt service, $15.90 for regular customers and the same for standby; and for business & occupation tax it is $3.08 for regular customers and would stay at the same amount for standby customers.

"If you add it all up, it would be $39.26 for an inactive customer, and a regular customer pays $56.83," Wellman explained. "I've tried to make a rational analysis of this. It's not necessarily cast in stone, but the costs are where I think they should be for water. We are not reading the meters, and there is less work associated with an inactive meter."

Woodrich said he believed those with service, whether active or not, needed to contribute to the costs of maintaining the overall water system.

"It's abundantly clear that both water and sewer services have a charge, whether they are in active use or not," Woodrich explained. "All ratepayers benefit by having everyone paying into the system. Some people get a free service -- reasonably, that has to end."

"If inactive users don't pay in, they're being subsidized by active customers, so these costs are all justifiable," added Wellman.

Wellman pointed out that the format of the chart would also be used for other services.

"It's a tool we can use to analyze what our base rates should be for water and wastewater," he said. "We can look at what percentage of annual costs are assigned to a service."

According to Wellman, if the council approves this new approach, it would mean that when water meters are placed in the ground, people would begin paying for them, whether they were active or not.

"It's a little different from what it has been in the past," Wellman said.

In another recommendation, Wellman suggested that the city consider going to a flat base rate for all its water and wastewater customers -- regardless of whether they are inside or outside the city limits.

According to Wellman, charging more to customers simply because they live outside the city limits -- long an issue of controversy -- is arbitrary and not fair.

"You can't just charge people a 40 percent surcharge," he said. "We've done it, but I don't think it's appropriate."

Further, if the council approves the new ordinance, customers could pay for the water they actually use and not an arbitrary "gallons per month" figure set by City Hall. Currently, the base is 5,000 gallons per month for residential usage.

Wellman pointed out that setting a smaller base rate for all users, and then charging more based on actual water used would have significant benefits.

"We could balance the base rate with a commodity charge. The state wants a pretty good commodity charge to encourage conservation," he said.

The "commodity charge" would be based on the number of gallons a household or business uses each month.

"With conservation, customers might see their rates dropping," noted Woodrich.

The issue is expected to be discussed at the next meeting of the City Council, which will be on Feb. 6 at the White Salmon Fire Station. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.

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