Tacoma’s utility bills are set to climb, with the increases intended to help raise enough money to pay for capital improvements and other rising utility system costs amid stagnant revenues.
In the meantime, the city is poised to begin every-other-week garbage collection March 4. The new program will be phased in over a year based on garbage customers’ current weekly pick-up day.
“We’ll start with customers who get their garbage picked up on Mondays, then work our way through the rest,” said Mike Slevin, director of the city’s Environmental Services Department. “The program will be fully implemented by February” 2014.
Residential garbage rates largely will remain unchanged, though some of Tacoma’s big-volume customers could see increases and serious recyclers could cut their costs.
Other utilities, though, are headed for sizable price increases.
Under a rate plan headed to the City Council next month, typical in-city residential Tacoma Water customers would see their monthly bills rise this year by 6 percent – or $4 per bimonthly billing period – while out-of-city residential customers would see increases of about $14 per bill.
Tacoma Power rates would climb this year on average by 4.2 percent – or $8 per billing period for typical residential customers.
In 2014, power and water bills would increase again by the same amounts under the proposed two-year rate plan.
Meantime, customers of city waste- and surface-water services also face rate increases. Wastewater rates would climb 4.5 percent this year and 4.9 percent next year, driving up bimonthly bills for typical residential customers by $3.88 in 2013 and $4.40 in 2014.
For surface water rates, the council is set to review two options. The first is a baseline increase that would hike rates in 2013 by 5 percent and in 2014 by 5.5 percent – raising typical residential bimonthly bills by $1.78 and $2.06 respectively.
The other option would tack another 0.7 percent this year and 0.6 percent next year onto the proposed baseline hike, increasing typical bimonthly bills by an extra 24 cents in 2013 and by 22 cents in 2014.
The second option seeks to raise $300,000 per year to fund the city’s open space program, which aims to clean up and maintain public green spaces and increase the city’s tree canopy.
“We have to manage our urban open spaces,” said Councilman Ryan Mello, who proposed the added surface-water rate increase to fund the program. “Some areas are heavily infested with invasive species or prone to landslides and all kinds of problems.”
Unruly green spaces overdue for upkeep – such as Mason Gulch in the North End and the greenery between Stadium Way and Schuster Parkway – would be prime candidates under the program, Mello said.
“This wouldn’t fully fund (the program),” he added, “but it would be a great step forward.”
Officials for the city’s Environmental Services Department and Tacoma Public Utilities separately outlined proposed two-year utility rates to the City Council on Tuesday. Both proposals largely were unchanged from plans provided to the council during the city budgeting process late last year.
TPU Director Bill Gaines cited unfunded regulatory mandates to upgrade facilities, declining water sales and increased power rates from the Bonneville Power Administration as the driving forces for water and power rate hikes. Slevin also cited a backlog of aging pipes and water pumps and other needed system upgrades as causes for the general government utilities’ proposed rate increases.
Officials for both utilities said bill-payment assistance programs for low-income and senior residents also have been enhanced.
Monthly bills for Tacoma Power have increased by about 22 percent from 2003-12, records show. Over the same span, Tacoma Water’s summertime bills have climbed by about 40 percent, with customers bearing rate increases every year going back at least a decade.
Despite the proposed hikes, the officials pointed out that, compared to rates charged in other Northwest cities, Tacoma’s utility customers still have it good.
“We’re still one of the lowest-cost providers in virtually every customer class in the Puget Sound region,” Tacoma Power Superintendent Ted Coates said.
If approved, the new wastewater, surface water and garbage rates would take effect March 1. New power and water rates would kick in April 1.
Garbage rates for most customers would stay the same as now. More than half of Tacoma’s 54,000 residential garbage customers now opt for a 30-gallon can at a cost of $73.10 per bimonthly bill.
But customers who now have 60-gallon and 90-gallon cans would see their bimonthly bills jump by $4.60 and $9 respectively each year.
Those rate hikes actually aren’t new, Slevin said. They were approved several years ago under a phased-in initiative to move the city onto a volume-based garbage rate scale, he said.
“The less garbage you use, the less you pay,” Slevin said, describing how the volume-based program works. “But we spread the (volume-based hikes) over six years so as not to hit everybody with a big increase all at once.”
When the city begins its every-other-week collections in March, all customers who now use a 30-gallon can will be eligible for a 60-gallon can at no extra cost. But with the city’s food-waste recycling program also in effect, customers may actually want a smaller can, Slevin noted.
“It’s very possible you’ll be able to shift to a 45-gallon can and actually reduce your rates,” he said.Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @lewiskamb