Washougal OK’s utility rate hikes

Five-year plan will raise rates 2.9% a year for single-family residential users; more for commercial customers

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Screenshot by Doug Flanagan/Post-Record Trevor Evers (left), the city of Washougal's public works director, and Sergey Tarasov, a principal for the Redmond, Washington-based FCS Group, talk about the city of Washougal's new utility rates during a Washougal City Council workshop on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.

Washougal utility customers will see increases in their water, sewer and stormwater bills over the next five years.

The Washougal City Council adopted the new utility rates this week during a Council meeting held Monday, Jan. 22, and said the five years’ worth of utility rate increases for 2024-28 will be less than 3% a year for single-family ratepayers.

“The bottom line is the system-wide average (single-family) increase for combined utilities is less than inflation — 2.9% annually for the next five years,” City Manager David Scott said during the Council’s Jan. 8 workshop. “We were all relieved to see that result relative to what’s happened in the past.”

The increases to the City’s water, sewer and stormwater utility rates will be slightly less (2.31% in 2024) for multi-family customers and slightly more (3.26% in 2024) for commercial users.

The City showed a mock-up of an average bi-monthly bill for a single-family user with an 11 CCF water line that included utility taxes, which are not increasing under the newly adopted rate structure. The mock bill showed the customer, who had paid $263 bi-monthly for water, sewer and stormwater in 2023, would pay around $270 every two months for those same utilities in 2024. With an average system-wide rate increase of 2.9% annually, that same utility bill would increase to $303 by January 2028.

The new sewer rates for single-family residence ratepayers, for instance, will increase from $81.41 with a $5.96 per 100 cubic feet (CCF) volume charge in 2024, to $88.12 with a $6.44 per CCF (748 gallons) in 2028.

The Council reviewed a utility rate analysis conducted by FCS Group, a Redmond, Washington-based consulting firm, at a November 2023 Council workshop and determined the rate increases were needed “to ensure the ongoing viability of the essential utilities.”

In the ordinance approved Monday, Council members noted that city officials had “considered both industry best practices and City-specific information regarding the equitable recovery of the cost of providing water, sewer and stormwater utility services to its customers through its water, sewer and stormwater rates.”

The FCS consultants proposed a rate increase of 2.9% annually for the next five years from the start of 2024 through the end of 2028.

The City appointed a community advisory committee to provide input during the study process. The committee, which included Washougal residents Tom Carroll, Joan Ellis, Paul Greenlee, Debra Itzen, Brian Johnson, Bolt Minister and Jerry Shivley, met six times to review the City’s utility operations, financial reports and rate options. That committee also approved the FCS Group’s 2.9% annual increase for single-family users because, according to a City news release, “it strikes a balance that works financially for the City and is not overly burdensome for ratepayers.”

Johnson said the committee was “well aware” that the rate increases might be unpopular in Washougal, where utility customers have long complained that utility rates are too high.

“We felt we found a middle ground that understands the issues of our Washougal community but also allows us to plan for our future and the growth that is needed,” Johnson said.

Washougal residents have criticized the City’s utility rates in recent years, and have said their utility bills are often unaffordable.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I feel like (the City) can do something,” Washougal resident Randall Crane told The Post-Record in 2023, referring to what he considers unaffordable utility rates. “I mean, just saying, ‘Your water bill $700, tough luck,’ that’s not realistic. When you go to buy a car, it’s like, ‘Well, I can’t afford the Mercedes, so I’m going to go look at the Kia.’ With water, (there is no less-costly option). You either pay, or they’ll turn your water off.”

Relief available for low-come customers; City changes bill formatting to show breakdown of charges

Along with the rate increases, the City also is changing its utility bill formatting to help show customers exactly what they’re paying for every two months.

“One of the biggest complaints we get is (that) this bill doesn’t give enough information,” Washougal Finance Director Daniel Layer said.

The new utility bill format will include base charges and volume or consumption rates as well as the City’s utility taxes.

Scott reiterated that the utility rate increases are not utility tax increases.

“We are not touching the utility taxes,” Scott said. “The only thing we’re doing is itemizing them on (utility bills). They have been included in the number, now they’ll be itemized. There’s been no conversation about increasing utility taxes.”

The City offers two options for utility bill relief to residents — discounted rates for low-income senior citizens and an emergency utility assistance program, which provides demonstrated low-income customers with a grant of up to $250 to put toward their utility bills once per year.

A two-person household must demonstrate an annual income of $45,150 or less for the “very low income limit” (VLIL) senior rate or $27,100 or less for the “extremely low income limit,” (ELIL), Layer said.

The City has approved 88 customers to receive VLIL rates and 85 customers to receive ELIL reduced rates for single-family residences, according to Layer, who added that one single-family residence outside the city limits is receiving VLIL sewer rates.

The City has approved two multi-family units to receive VLIL rates and 13 multifamily units for ELIL reduced rates, Layer said.

Residents must be eligible for the federal government’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to participate in the City’s emergency utility assistance program, Layer told The Post-Record. To qualify for the LIHEAP, a two-person household must demonstrate an annual income of $29,580 or less.

The City processed 28 applications for its emergency utility assistance program in 2023.

“The number of customers in either of these programs fluctuates as new residents move in, customers age in (and) income levels change,” Layer said.