Puyallup utility customers will soon pay higher rates across the board, and high-volume water users are worried their budgets will take a hit.
A spike in water rates totaling nearly 30 percent over the next four years was implemented to avoid what officials called a probable “catastrophic failure” of the aging system.
One councilman said the city has spent years “basically playing Russian roulette with our water system.”
Major water customers, including Good Samaritan Hospital and the Washington State Fair & Events Center, say that conservation projects will help them curb costs and avoid impacting public services. They just wish they’d been given advance warning from the city.
In a 4-3 vote Feb. 4, the Puyallup City Council approved an annual 2.7 percent rate increase — designed as a stair-step hike to pace inflation — for storm, sewer and water utilities. Water utility rates will climb an additional 4 percent a year through 2017 to pay for replacement and repair of aging pipes and other infrastructure, some of which is more than 100 years old.
City Manager Bill McDonald said the new rates go into effect this month but won’t be seen by customers until the bi-monthly bill in May.
Puyallup ratepayers are spending much less than residents in neighboring communities, McDonald said, and the city is in catch-up mode after years of postponing fee increases. The new rates for all three utilities will cost the average residential customer about $3.22 more a month, he said.
“We’ve got to start spending more money on replacement,” McDonald said, adding that the main water line is more than 100 years old. “My big fear is that we will have a catastrophic failure.”
According to a staff report, Puyallup ratepayers spend about $21 per month on water on average. By comparison, ratepayers in neighboring communities spend between $25 and $50 a month.
The city has identified 12 miles of the main water line that must be replaced at a cost of $25.5 million, or about $1.28 million a year.
Officials at the Washington State Fair say the higher utility rates will cause unexpected budget challenges.
The fairgrounds host events year-round, not just during the 17-day end-of-summer event.
Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said the annual cost for water and sewer utilities last year was about $189,000 and that a 6.7 percent increase on water alone will put a strain on the budget.
However, she said, the costs won’t trickle down to fairgoers.
“We’re always working to find ways to conserve the money so it won’t be felt in their pocket,” LaFlamme said.
One way the fair is reducing costs is by installing low-flow toilets throughout the fairgrounds, said operations manager Glen Baskett. But, he said, “that won’t combat the 6 percent that’s coming at us.”
Good Samaritan Hospital, another major water customer in Puyallup, will also get some help from low-flow toilets in one of its newer buildings.
MultiCare Health System spokesman Cole Cosgrove said the Dally Tower, a new inpatient facility built in 2011, earned federal certification for its sustainable designs that included the water-saving toilets.
Cosgrove said that will help offset higher costs at the hospital, but the new rates will make it challenging to keep costs down; MultiCare spent $430,000 for water, wastewater and stormwater services in Puyallup last year.
“The decision affects not only MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital but our clinics and offices throughout Puyallup that provide important services in our community — such as Children’s Therapy Unit and Good Samaritan Behavioral Health,” Cosgrove said in a statement.
Councilman John Palmer said the issue of lagging utility rates had been ignored for too long in Puyallup and that the increases will help the city catch up after years of a stagnant revenue stream.
Palmer voted for the rate increases, along with Julie Door, John Hopkins and Heather Shadko. Mayor John Knutsen and council members Tom Swanson and Steve Vermillion opposed the hikes.
Palmer said the water utility is “drastically underfunded,” the rate of water loss due to crumbling pipes is very high, and the $21-per-month cost is significantly lower than what residents pay in neighboring cities — all key points in favor of the increase.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road on this issue for seven years,” he said.
Fellow council member Hopkins echoed those remarks, adding that nobody ever wants to vote for or pay higher fees.
“This was a very difficult decision because we know it impacts people … especially (those) on a fixed income,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes you just have to take your medicine no matter how bad it tastes.”
Knutsen said he opposed such a drastic hike over a four-year span. He said the combined increases will total more than 25 percent by the end of 2017.
“We’ve received complaints that it is already too high as it is,” he said of water rates, adding that high-volume water customers weren’t warned of the hikes beforehand.
LaFlamme said fair officials reached out to the city to plan for any new costs. The rate increases were never mentioned during that process, she said.
Puyallup School District spokesman Brian Fox said the School District was unaware of an increase in water rates until speaking to The News Tribune on Friday. The city is one of six water service providers for Puyallup schools.
Knutsen acknowledged that Puyallup hasn’t improved the water system as swiftly as it should, but said “that’s what we are dealt.”
“I don’t think that it’s the appropriate time, based on the economy, to hit the public with such a large increase,” he said.