Spokane City Council says save water, pay more

September 14, 2011

Earlier this year, the City of Spokane implemented a punishing five-tier price structure for water use for city homeowners. The message from government officials was clear – save water or we’ll charge you more.

Today, citizens are saving even more water than they did before, and the new message from councilmembers is contradictory – we’re going to charge you more, because you’re conserving. It’s not hard to figure out why Spokane homeowners are frustrated.

This week, Spokane City Councilmembers Jon Snyder, Joe Shogan, Amber Waldref and Richard Rush voted to raise city water rates 16% next year. Because the vote was 4-3, Mayor Mary Verner does have the option to veto the rate hike.

The dramatic increase in prices in 2012 could be accompanied by even higher rate hikes in upcoming years, as proposed by government officials in the City of Spokane.

Proposed Spokane Water Rate Hikes

  • 2012 – 16% increase
  • 2013 – 17.5% increase
  • 2014 – 16% increase
  • 2015 – 5% increase
  • 2016 – 5% increase
  • 2017 – 5% increase

The 16% rate hike for 2012 is across all five tiers – meaning rates will climb higher than they did before the five-tier structure was put into place. As Washington Policy Center pointed out in our Analysis of Spokane’s Water Price Changes, government officials in Spokane lowered initial rates under their new five-tier structure with the promise that half of Spokane homeowners would pay less. But less than a year later, this week’s actions will push rates at or above what they were under the previous structure, breaking that promise to the citizens.

(Price Per Unit - 748 Gallons Per Unit)

2010 Rates                  2011 Rates                  2012 Rates

0-6 units $.23              0-4 units $.20              0-4 units $.23

6-10 units $.49            5-10 units $.45            5-10 units $.52

Over 10 units $.66      11-18 units $.85          11-18 units $.99

                                19-45 units $1.35        19-45 units $1.57

                               Over 45 units $1.85    Over 45 units $2.15

Was the new five-tier structure needed? Spokane city officials said it was about conservation, about water revenue, and about the health of the Rathdrum Prairie-Spokane Valley Aquifer.

However, Spokane homeowners were far-ahead of government officials in reducing their water use. In fact, despite an increase in the population of 7%, Spokane citizens reduced their water consumption by 10% since 2000.

While some homeowners may be able to reduce their use, families with children may not. These elevated rates specifically punish families, even though they have no choice but to use a certain amount of water simply to live. Instead of understanding those concerns, Councilman Jon Snyder dismissed them in an offensive way, saying the “Brady Bunch taking baths is not going to take anybody up to the top tier.”

Government officials warn the more people conserve, the more they will have to pay in order for the water department to maintain revenue.

In terms of revenue, water department dollars flowing into the city of Spokane were also up 27% since 2000.

Much of the extra money flowing into city coffers has not gone to infrastructure, but to city salaries and benefits. In 2005, the City of Spokane had 166 positions in its water division and allocated $10.1 million for salary and benefits. Only four positions were added between 2005 and 2010, and yet the allocated money for salaries and benefits jumped 34%.

Most water department employees are members of the Local 270 union. Each received a 5% raise in 2004, a 5% raise in 2005, a 3% raise in 2006, a 5% raise in 2007, a 5% raise in 2008, a 5% raise in 2009, a 2.5% raise in 2010, and many will get 5% hikes this year and next. City workers are getting raises while many Spokane residents are unemployed.

The contract with Local 270 is up at the end of 2012. Few private sector workers are making 40% more than they were just six years ago.

The city’s water department insists the new cash is needed to repair water infrastructure in the city. And they are quick to point out that Spokane’s water cost is relatively cheap compared to cities like Seattle and Portland. But Spokane is not Seattle and it’s not Portland. Spokane’s source of water is abundant and free – and, despite claims, the Rathdrum Prairie-Spokane Valley Aquifer is not running out of water. In fact, 40% of the water Spokane homeowners use for outdoor purposes drains right back into the Aquifer.

Once again, WPC believes Spokane citizens would be better-served by a flat rate for water with a slightly higher flat rate during the summer. This approach is in place in Boise and Tacoma. Earlier this month, Spokesman-Review newspaper reporter Jonathan Brunt suggested that adopting such a rate structure would increase prices for Spokane homeowners.

This is only true if that flat rate matched Tacoma’s ($1.63) or Boise’s ($1.69), and in Spokane’s case it wouldn’t need to. Instead, government officials in Spokane are using their monopoly to increase the financial burden they place on homeowners.

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