Washougal residents protest steep water bills

City links higher bills to elevated consumption during peak season, 'long-planned rate increases'

When Ashley Rheault opened her most recent water bill from the city of Washougal, she simply couldn’t believe her eyes.

Nobody, she thought, should have to pay $452.11 for two months’ worth of water. She desperately hoped that the number was a misprint of some sort. After all, she had been charged only $380 on her previous bill and, as far as she knew, hadn’t increased her water consumption.

“I was overwhelmed with surprise, anger and confusion,” she said. “I was scared because I didn’t know how we were going to pay for it. I was angry because I thought the city was trying to pull one over on us.”

Rheault is one of several Washougal residents who are demanding answers about their recent water bills, which they claim are significantly higher than previous invoices.

About 10 people gathered in front of City Hall on Oct. 27 to protest the increases.

“We want them to know that we’re not just going to roll over,” Rhehault said. “We’d like to know why the increases are happening and where the money is going and when it’s going to stop. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We’re not going to tolerate it.

“We have a good friend who works for the water department in Camas. I told him about our bill, and he said, ‘That’s not right. You have to do something about that.’ It’s important for us to have a presence in front of city hall and let (city officials) know that the community is not happy.”

Washougal resident Dee McGrath said her most recent water bill more than doubled, from $241 to $503.

“We want to send a message to the city that we need a resolution to high water rates,” McGrath said. “This is hurting the community. It hurts the growth of our community. I don’t want to create a problem. I want to create a solution to the problem.”

Sinhart said that her most recent bill, which covered the months of July and August, was $346.83, more than $60 higher than her previous invoice. But others, she said, have reported amounts of $800 or more.

“(My increase) is miniscule compared to some others,” Sinhart said. “I’ve talked to other people who say that they haven’t been watering their lawns and their bills are still increasing. It doesn’t make sense. We expect increases every now and then, I guess, but in September it got out of control. One woman wrote (on social media) that her bill is more than her mortgage payment. How in the world are people supposed to pay this? Not eat for a month? What about single mothers? Some people just can’t afford to pay these bills.”

Rheault said that when she moved into her Washougal house in November 2019 with her husband and two children, they were charged between $100 and $120 for two months of water usage, but the amount steadily increased as the year went on.

She said the most recent bill has had “a tremendous impact” on her family’s budget.

“This is a huge burden,” she said. “We can’t afford that kind of bill. We’re a single-income family, and we have to budget like you wouldn’t believe as it is. If this continues, we can’t afford to live here.”

City: escalating water use, ‘long-planned rate increases’ lead to higher water bills

Trevor Evers, the city of Washougal’s public works director, said the increases are due to escalating water consumption during summer months, a rise in the number of people staying home due to COVID-19 and long-planned rate increases due to utility infrastructure needs. He added that the city didn’t levy any rate increases this year that were not previously planned.

The current rates, adopted by the city council in 2018, will remain in place through 2023.

“Peak water consumption season is usually July, August and September. We’ll see some high water use from some of our customers during those months. Recreational use for water during the peak season is really the driver for (the increases),” he said. “As we move out of the peak season, people should be receiving lower bills. Also, with the public health crisis, lots of people are working from home, distance learning from home with their kids, and that’s a factor that has to be taken into consideration.”

Capital facilities costs are a significant driver of rates, according to Evers.

“There are and have been several large-scale improvements to the wastewater treatment plant due to the growth and Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) mandates that have been taking place since 1999 that have been phased over the past two decades to keep costs as low as possible for the citizens of Washougal,” he said. “Two large projects that will take place in the current rate window are the construction of biosolids treatment facilities and an anoxic selector. Again, to reiterate, these projects are mandated by DOE. We are always cognizant of the impacts and mitigate the costs as much as possible. Once these two large scale improvements are completed, the city will have capacity to serve the citizens through at least 2030.”

The average water rate in Washougal in 2019 was $36.73, according to the city of Vancouver website. Rates for other cities in Clark County were between $23 and $27.

“Some of our customers point to Vancouver and Camas when comparing our rates,” Evers said. “Some of the mitigating factors for larger cities in the region, including Vancouver and Camas, are the large users of the system that help offset the cost for the smaller residential users of the system. For example, a large consumer can be required to upsize or construct new utilities that cities can pay a nominal fee to upsize and piggyback off the capacity created, which keeps cost down. Additionally, the more users in a system once it is up and running lowers the cost to all users.

“However, cities the size of Washougal can have higher rates due to the need for new facilities which can only be paid for by a smaller number of customers. Also, the situation in each city is unique in terms of the timing and scope of capital facilities requirements, the nature of their rate-paying base and the level of utility tax.”

The residents also say they’re frustrated with a lack of communication from city officials despite repeated inquiries.

“There was no advance warning,” Sinhart said. “I think it’s crazy. Some people have written to the city, gone to meetings, and received no explanation. In a small town, the old saying is ‘politics is a dirty business.’ I come from New York City. I spent decades in San Diego. I’ve seen dirty politics. But what I’m seeing now, it’s bad. I don’t really know what’s going on.”

Evers said that he believes the city has “done a pretty good job” of communicating the water rates. City officials inserted a “fact sheet” into residential utility bills in February and March, and posted information about the rates to the city’s social media channels on March 11.

“Is there room for improvement as we look to peak season next year? Yes. I think there are opportunities to improve communication and make revisions,” Evers said. “We feel like we have been transparent about this, but we’ll take into consideration that the customers want to have access to this information, and we’ll do everything we can to improve moving forward.”

Evers said that city employees have worked diligently with customers to assuage their concerns.

“We did (anticipate some pushback),” he said. “Maybe not at this scale, though. The utility billing customer service team has handed a high call volume, and done a great job of working with customers to try and resolve their concerns.”

“When we talk with customers, we pull out their historical (usage data) and show it to them. We’ll tell them that they used about the same amount of water as they did at this time last year, or three or four units more, or whatever the circumstances may be,” he added. “We make sure that we’re tracking historical consumption. We also check to make sure that there haven’t been any leaks.”

The fact sheet states that the city will “continue to move toward a structure in which (customers) only pay for a base fee and actual consumption instead of paying for an allowance (set amount included in the flat fee). This will allow customers to control their bill and those who use the allowance (or less) will notice a decrease in their water portion of the utility bill. By 2023, there will no longer be an allowance in the base fee.”

“The more water that is used, the more that is consumed, the more expensive that it is,” Evers said. “Our framework on that is grounded in conservation. We try to deter people from significant use during the peak season. (That approach) is an industry standard, to a certain extent.”

McGrath said that although a second protest activity hasn’t yet been scheduled, the “movement will keep on going.”

‘I know people are really upset about this,” she said. “I know they are talking about it. We want to do something about it, but there are obstacles in the way. I want to see the (city) budget. I want to see where money goes for utilities. I worked for the state of Washington for many years, and I know that sometimes you have to watch the budget for your department, because sometimes Peter will pay Paul.”

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