Water, Sewer Bills Taking Bigger Bite Out Of
NOT A CHEAP OPERATION: Clifford Ness cleans out secondary
clarifier tanks at the sewage treatment plant in Blaine on
Thursday afternoon. Ness is the lead operator at the plant,
which employs two full-time and one part-time employee.
Blaine City Manager Gary Tomsic says one of the reasons
water and sewer costs are going up is because of the need to
deal with aging infrastructure. PETE KENDALL
factors spur tripling of bills in some cases
Shaw, The Bellingham Herald
WOULD HAVE PREFERRED INCREMENTAL INCREASES: John Emory of
Ferndale isn't happy about the abrupt sewer and water rate
increases. He wishes the City Council had passed incremental
rate increases to ease the blow. RACHEL E. BAYNE
water go after it disappears down the drain?
To city public works directors - and, increasingly,
water and sewer ratepayers - the question is not an idle one.
Getting water to people and cleaning it has become a
race against ailing, aging infrastructure and ballooning populations,
city officials across the county say. At some point, they say there's no
choice other than to hunt for additional water sources and build costly
And for the rest of us, paying for the privilege of
flush toilets and tap water is changing from being one of many household
bills in a month to a noticeable chunk of our budgets.
Just ask Edie Emory of Ferndale, a retiree whose
bimonthly water and sewer bill more than tripled to $250 this summer
thanks to a 25 percent rise in sewer rates. City officials say the raise
was needed just to keep up with debt payments on Ferndale's 5-year-old,
$12 million wastewater treatment plant.
"I know at some degree, they needed to raise rates," she
said. "They could've started earlier so it wouldn't be such a shock."
Many Ferndale residents fear the new rates were an
unfair shock to the senior citizens on fixed incomes - even though the
city's combined monthly water and sewer rates are the second lowest in
The city of Nooksack's rates are the highest - an
average of $66 a month - despite only nominal rate increases over the
last five years. Everson provides service for Nooksack, but even
combined, the population is so small that rates stay higher, said
Everson City Administrator Matt Sullivan.
By comparison, the state average in 2002 was $52.44.
Most Bellingham homeowners pay $52.25 a month for water and sewer
service, which includes a storm-water fee and a $5 fee to buy land in
the Lake Whatcom watershed.
Sumas has by far the lowest rates in the county at
$39.04 per month, thanks to a unique agreement to treat sewage in Canada
and an abundant aquifer.
Whatcom County cities have not set sewer rates for next
year, although administrators in half of them say there's a high
likelihood of single-digit increases just to break even with the cost of
providing services and keeping up infrastructure.
"What's happening in Whatcom County is really what's
happening around the country," said Gary Tomsic, Blaine city manager.
"Aging infrastructure - water, sewer, streets and bridges - it's almost
to the point of a crisis."
It's hard to identify just one reason why water and
sewer have become a critical concern now as opposed to 10 years ago,
city leaders say. But they point to changes that, when put together, add
up to a boiling point:
• New regulations without added funding.
"You have to design water and treatment to
deal with all kinds of standards that didn't exist 30 years ago,"
Tomsic said. He said many are positive and much-needed restrictions to
clean up shellfish beds and protect water.
But the "unfunded mandates," however necessary,
strain city finances and force rates up because state and federal funds
aren't as readily available as in years past.
The next federal demand on local funds? Homeland
The feds haven't decided just what steps cities should
take to protect their water sources and systems from terrorist attacks,
Tomsic said, but he'd be surprised to see any federal money to pay for
meeting the new requirements.
• Lack of federal and state funding.
In Whatcom County, sewage plant upgrades and remodels
run from $7 million to $32 million, the price tag for a now-abandoned
Blaine-Birch Bay cooperative plan.
"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, you could go to
the federal or state governments and ask for a grant," said
Ferndale City Administrator Roland Signett. "That's no longer there
because of fiscal constraints. The burden is going back on the
communities to solve their own problem and find the funding to solve the
n Growing populations.
Lynden and the Lummi Reservation, where demand for water
is outpacing supply, are not the only places straining with growth.
Every city in Whatcom County grew in population over the past decade,
meaning pipes and pumps made for less demand are straining to get
increasing amounts of water to new houses and developments.
Everson may be the next city to face such growth: city
administrator Sullivan reported plans for a large housing development
early next year, while the public works director said the city will
likely have to overhaul its 32-year-old sewage treatment plant in the
next five years.
'I don't understand'
Eris Butters didn't know why her water bill jumped from
$77 to $198 for her Ferndale home this summer. All she knew was the bill
looked like it had an extra number on it.
"I thought it was a misprint," she said. "I just don't
really know why. I don't understand, but something should be done about
it: I'm on a fixed income."
Nancy Fasler, a retired widow who moved to Ferndale five
years ago, also thought her summer bill was a mistake.
"I hadn't watered my yard all summer. I do water my
plants, but I thought that was incredible," she said.
Concerns from residents like Butters and Fasler turned
the high price of water and sewer into a fall campaign issue in
Ferndale. Every City Council and mayoral candidate named the cost burden
on seniors and low-income families as a major community problem.
City Council member Marianne Elgart said she is working
with state officials to see if there is a way to grant some relief to
those groups of people.
John Emory, Emory's husband, said he worries too, and
wishes the Ferndale City Council had passed incremental rate increases
to ease the blow.
"We are by no means affluent or wealthy, we're
comfortable," he said. "But for people who live on month-to-month
budgets, I don't know what they are going to do."
In the end, water shortages, pressing
wastewater-treatment needs and growing populations mean that water
delivery and treatment promises to become more and more of a daily
concern. It already is at small-town city halls.
Tomsic estimated he spends about a quarter of his
workweek on sewage treatment issues. Blaine Public Works Director Steve
Banham spends about half of his time on it.
"A lot of these cities are going to be facing the same
things Ferndale has been facing in the last few years," Ferndale's
Signett said. "We were just one of the first ones."
In Blaine, Mayor Dieter Schugt said building a new
system could cost ratepayers a 16 percent rate increase over the next
three years - although he won't know in certain terms until the Blaine
City Council approves new water and sewer plans in the next two months.
"It's coming," Schugt said.
Kari Shaw at
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2290.