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Water, Sewer Bills Taking Bigger Bite Out Of Household Budgets
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 HERALD PHOTO


Many factors spur tripling of bills in some cases

Kari 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 HERALD PHOTO

Where does 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 new upgrades.

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 Whatcom County.

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."

Why now?

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 security.

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 problem."

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."

What's next?

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.

Reach Kari Shaw at kari.shaw@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2290.

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