Politics & Government

Pierce County proposes raising sewer hookup charges 72 percent for treatment plant expansion

Pierce County is proposing to raise sewer hookup charges in Lakewood, University Place and unincorporated parts of the county by an average of 72 percent next year to help pay for expansion of the Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The increase is a one-time fee. But it comes on top of a series of sewer rate hikes that county residents have absorbed to fund the $353 million project in University Place. Those rate increases also totaled 72 percent, but they were spread across six straight years, starting in 2010 and ending next year.

The proposal includes a nearly three-fold hike in the sewer capacity charge — a charge that hasn’t changed in 30 years.

The Master Builders Association of Pierce County has voiced concern about the size of the increase and the potential impact on small builders — as well as higher costs passed on to home buyers.

“There’s a lot of concern that’s coming out of our group about the increase,” Jeremiah Lafranca, government affairs manager for the association, told a County Council committee last month.

County Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, said he has concerns as well, even though he’s sponsoring the proposal.

Flemming said that coming out of the economic recession, it’s important to keep the housing market stimulated. He said he’s been working on alternatives that could soften the blow for builders without reducing revenue for the treatment plant project. One option is to increase the capacity charge in steps over three years.

The County Council is under a time crunch to raise sewer connection charges. A council committee is scheduled to consider the proposal Tuesday morning, followed by full council action in the afternoon.

The increased charges would apply to new construction as well as existing properties switching from septic tanks.

They would finance $37 million in revenue bonds, the latest in a series of bond issues for the wastewater treatment plant across from Chambers Bay Golf Course. If the council delays action on the charges and bond issue, the county might have to pay higher interest rates later.

The proposed connection charge increase contains two parts: the capacity charge and the basin area charge.

The capacity charge pays for the portion of the treatment plant’s capacity used by a residence or other building. The proposed increase would nearly triple that charge, from $1,250 to $3,450 per residence.

The capacity charge hasn’t been increased since 1984, when the treatment plant was built. The primary reason the increase is so large is to make up for inflation over the last 30 years, said Carl Every, sewer division manager.

State law requires the capacity charge increase must be directly related to capacity costs. Since capacity will increase next year, the county can start collecting a higher charge, said public works and utilities director Brian Ziegler.

The increase in capacity charge is projected to generate about $2.5 million in revenue next year, Every said. The sewer division estimates there will be from 1,200 to 1,600 connections in 2015.

The second part of the increase is the basin area charge. It pays for the pumps and pipes that transport sewage from houses to the treatment plant, and it varies greatly based on topography in the county.

The average basin area charge would increase from $1,961 to $2,084. This charge has increased in recent years.

When combined, the two increases would raise the average sewer hookup charge from $3,211 to $5,534. That would rank below Kitsap County’s current average charge of $5,645 but above Tacoma’s average of $3,250.

County residents have been helping pay for the treatment plant project with a series of rate increases. By 2015, the monthly sewer rate for single-family residences will have increased from $25.72 to $44.18. These increases are designed to cover the costs of rehabilitating — not expanding — the treatment plant, Every said.

The connection charge increase is calculated for single-family residences, but the charge also would go up for commercial buildings and multi-family dwellings. Increases for all three types of new construction are based on projected sewage usage and would take effect Jan. 1, Every said.

The proposal also calls for capacity and basin area charges to increase annually by the regional Consumer Price Index starting in 2016, subject to approval by the County Council each year.