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Utility rates set for jump

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Fife City Council delayed water and sewage rate increases during the Great Recession of recent years to shield residents from rising costs during the economic downturn. Sewer rates, for example, hadn’t changed for a decade.

“Unfortunately, we have to play catch up,” Deputy Mayor Pat Hulcey said during the Sept. 23 first reading of the ordinances that increase water, stormwater and sewer rates. “Nothing lasts forever. There are a lot of things in the ground that have been in the ground a long time.”

All rate changes passed unanimously, with only Councilmember Bryan Yambe ceremoniously opposing the rate increase for sewer services.

“We are still recovering from the ‘Great Recession,’” he said. “This is way, way too much.”

Sewer rates now jump 45 percent, from $42.01 to $60.91 a month and up to $74.36 by 2020. Water jumps about 75 cents from $39.25 to $40.01 for the average home starting after the first of the year, while stormwater rates go from $6.71 to $8.06. All totaled, average homeowners will see their combined monthly bills go from $87.98 to $108.98 in January. Apartment dwellers will see their average bills go from $81.55 to $102 a month in 2015.

More increases will follow, bringing the bills to $130.96 a month for homeowners and $122.39 for apartment renters after five years. Those rates put Fife in the middle range of utility costs in the region. The jumps backfill the utility funds for needed improvements as well as are set to then rise with the rate of inflation in the coming years to avoid such large leaps in the future. That is, after a few years of sliding rate increases that translate into about $20 more in utility costs for residential customers.

The cost adjustments came after the city hired a consulting company to review its utility cost structure as well as the expectations of future improvements. The council then reviewed utility rates at its annual council retreat this summer and then at a study session in August. The public hearing in early September prompted little public comment.

“We are going in underway, so we need to get back above water and then continue to make progress toward covering the additional costs we are projecting,” FCS Group consultant Chris Gonzalez said, noting the $14 million in infrastructure improvements slated to come in the next five years. “The status quo isn’t going to be enough.”

The recent slate of ordinances resets rates to cover funding gaps and keep up with inflation and rising costs. Sewer service costs about $3.9 million a year, while the only taking in $3.5 million from ratepayers. The pass-through costs from Tacoma Public Utilities add to the overall rate changes.

“We really have no way to stay in business than to pass that on,” Public Works Director Russ Blount said, noting that there have been discussions about connecting to Puyallup or other city for water, but Tacoma is less expensive and the economies of scale on sewage treatment give the city few options for finding other providers.