Camas utility rates going up in 2024

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The Camas Public Works Operations Center, at 1620 S.E. Eighth Ave., is seen Monday, March 28, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Camas utility customers will soon pay more for their city utilities.

On Monday, Dec. 4, the Camas City Council voted to adopt utility rate increases for a five-year period beginning in 2024.

The average Camas utility ratepayer will notice a 5% increase in their monthly utility rate charges in 2024, Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall said Monday.

Wall, along with FCS Group consultant Sergey Tarasov, presented four utility rate analysis to the Camas City Council during the Council’s Sept. 5 and Sept. 18 workshops, and returned to a workshop held Oct. 16, to discuss the possibility of implementing a tiered system for the city’s water rates that could help promote water conservation.

“The costs of services in all areas of the City continues to rise, including utility services,” Wall told the Council in September.

On Monday, following no Council discussion or public comments, Camas City Council members voted unanimously to approve the rate increases to the City’s sewer and garbage-recycling rates and voted 6-1 — with Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen casting the only “no” votes — to approve the City’s water and stormwater rate increases for 2024-28.

According to Wall’s presentation to the Council on Monday, the combined average residential Camas utility customer currently pays $132.39 a month for water, sewer, stormwater and solid waste (garbage-recycling). With the increases Council approved this week, the average customer will pay $6.58 more per month ($138.97) in 2024.

Tarasov told Council members in October it was a good time to evaluate the City’s utility rates in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation and supply chain issues. The rate increases, Wall and Tarasov said, will allow the City to continue providing essential utility services while also taking care of needed capital projects.

“To continue serving both existing and new customers, and allow for necessary repair and replacement of equipment, the City’s capital improvement program is relatively large and puts additional pressure on the utility rates,” Wall said.

The Council adopted higher utility rates in 2018, to help support ongoing capital improvements and account for higher operating and maintenance costs. That rate adjustment increased the average residential customer’s monthly water, sewer and stormwater utility bill by about 4%.

“In the last study, in 2018, all three (water, sewer and stormwater) had some deficiencies,” Wall told Council members in September.

The city’s rate increases for its solid waste, or garbage-recycling removal services have been “minimal” over the past few years, with no increases in 2019 or 2020, and increases of 1% to 2% over the past three years, Wall told Council members earlier this year.

“We were able to essentially hold steady over that five-year timeframe,” Wall said in September.

Tarasov added that “quite a bit has changed” since city officials last considered adjusting utility rates in 2018: “We have gone through a pandemic and experienced substantial increases in inflation, compounded by supply chain issues around the world.”

“And if you look at specific component costs … they are off the charts due to supply chain issues, especially in the last couple years,” Wall added. “Costs have significantly gone up on the construction side over the last three to four years.”

Wall and Tarasov said the utilities’ operating and maintenance costs are expected to increase over the next few years, due to increasing construction, labor and benefits costs. They predicted general costs would increase by 4% in 2025, and by 3% a year through 2028; while construction costs were expected to increase by 6% in 2024, 4% in 2025 and 3.5% in 2026, 2027 and 2028. They also said labor costs would likely increase by 4% in 2025, and by 3% each year through 2028, while benefits costs would likely cost 6% more per year through 2028.

The City also has a wide range of capital projects planned for the future. In October, Wall presented a few of the capital needs associated with the City’s utilities — including a reservoir constructed in 1913 that needs $12 million worth of upgrades; the 1935 Lower Prune Hill reservoir and booster stations that will cost nearly $10 million to replace; a cracked and rusted sewer clarifier built in 1970 that will cost around $5.6 million to replace; a sewer lift station that requires $500,000 in replacement components; and a gear replacement project at the upper dam on Round Lake that will cost $300,000.

“These capital improvement projects can get (expensive) pretty quickly,” Wall told Council members in October.

City could offer tiered, water-conservation rate structure in 2025

In October, Wall and Tarasov discussed the possibility of changing over to a tiered rate structure that would reward customers who conserved water with lower rates. Though some Council members seemed to favor that type of structure — which Tarasov said started to gain popularity in Washington in the early 2000s — the City’s current financial system is not yet able to handle a tiered utility rate structure.

The City could be ready to accommodate such a system in 2025, when City leaders hope to change over to a monthly instead of bi-monthly utility billing system.

“I’m getting the sense that some additional thought (needs to be) put into the tiered rate structure … between now and 2025,” Wall told Council members. “In the meantime, we recommend adopting some form of a linear structure to make sure we don’t lose ground completing projects.”

The new utilities rates adopted by the Council will increase the utilities’ rates by 6% (water), 3.25% (sewer), 13.5% (stormwater) and 2.5% (garbage) annually, 2024 through 2028.