The Napavine City Council has voted to raise its base sewer rate by more than 23 percent to account for a recent increase in charges for sewer service from the City of Chehalis.
Approved during their regular meeting Tuesday night in a 4-1 vote, the increase brings the base rate from $47 per month to $58 per month, while the usage rate was reduced from $4.90 per 100 cubic feet to $4.50 per cubic feet, with the new rates expected to go into effect June 1.
Officials explained the increase was the result of a finding from Chehalis last year that Napavine was under-paying for services received from a Chehalis-based wastewater treatment facility jointly owned by Napavine, Chehalis and Lewis County Water and Sewer District 4.
According to Napavine Community Development Director Steve Ashley, the city was initially told their costs for system operations would increase by roughly 70, though objections were raised by city officials who said they wanted to examine the specific figures that led to such a proposed increase.
(According to a 1976 interlocal agreement between Napavine, Chehalis and District 4 for sewer service, Chehalis retained sole authority to set and amend rates paid by the other entities, while each entity remained responsible for the rates paid by their customers.)
Ashley said, after subsequent negotiations between Chehalis and the system's Sewer Operating Board, the increase to Napavine was reduced to roughly 40 percent, and said the rate changes approved by the council on Tuesday account for this increase.
During discussions about the changes, Council Member Laverne Haslett was outspokenly opposed to increasing the base rate, stating she felt doing so would disproportionately increase payments from customers using less water.
"What you're doing, with these rates, is you're putting the burden on the low water users," she said, stating she felt the proposed rate structure was "not fair at all" to such customers.
Haslett acknowledged she had not felt comfortable with any of the proposed increases put before the council, which included options such as a $55 base rate and $5 usage rate, but encouraged the council to at least consider focusing on greater usage rates instead.
Council Member Scott Hamilton defended the idea of a larger base rate, stating a higher usage rate would lead to significant seasonal changes in sewer income, while a higher base rate would create greater financial stability.
"Because we're asking for more of a fixed base rate with a lower consumption rate, it makes it a lot easier for us to budget, manage and meet those requirements for the City of Chehalis," he said.
When the matter was put to a vote, Haslett was the only council member in opposition to the increase, stating she was concerned whether or not the city as ready to respond to the "backlash" likely to come from the public.
After passing the new rate structure, the council discussed the possibility of creating a lower-cost customer category for senior citizens, with Haslett pointing out the approved ordinance contained no such provisions.
City Attorney Mark Scheibmeir said a new customer category would be an option, with other cities having taken similar action, but said research of usage by seniors would need to be conducted first to justify special rates, as simply giving them a discount would constitute a gifting of city resources.
"I think there needs to be some analysis and some language determined," he told the council, adding, if they deice to offer discounts for one customer group, an increase would need to take place for other customers to balance out the rates.
The council said they would be interested in looking into the idea for both water and sewer, with Ashley stating, from what he understands of usage by seniors, he believes research will indicate a justification in offering them a lower rate. Mayor John Sayers said he expects the matter will appear on the council's agenda for their April 28 meeting.
Also expected to be discussed during upcoming meetings will be an amendment to their interlocal agreement for sewer services, with the council having reviewed a draft of said agreement on Tuesday. Ashley said changes to the agreement are intended to provide greater authority for Napavine and District 4, making leadership over the system more "neutral" rather than centered around Chehalis. A new agreement remains in the proposal stage, he added, with a changes expected in the coming weeks.
Ashley added the city continues to explore the option of parting with Chehalis and building their own system, or hooking into Winlock's system, stating the deciding factors will come down to financial feasibility.