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Yelm Mayor JW Foster shows off the distinctive furnishings in the council chambers of Yelm City Hall in this March file photo.

The Yelm City Council is taking steps to help its ratepayers amid the financial woes that have occurred due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Tuesday, the council passed a pair of ordinances that give water and sewer customers the ability to defer payments, if necessary, during a time when emergencies have been declared both by the state and federal government.

More discussion is expected as the council considers substantial temporary cuts for those ratepayers.

Ordinances 1060 and 1061 give Mayor JW Foster the ability to authorize utility contract deferments or offer installments for utility bill payments for up to one year for customers if necessary during a declared emergency. The pair of ordinances passed unanimously.

Before the vote, council member Molly Carmody said the action was a step in the right direction, but added that there’s likely more the council and city can do to help people affected by the government-mandated business closures.

“I think it’s a double-whammy to slam these people with three or four months of a water bill that’ll be 500 or 600 dollars at that point,” Carmody said. “It’s going to be huge for so many people.”

Carmody then proposed waving all city utility customer fees for April and May.

Foster said that proposal could put the city on shaky legal ground, as public entities aren’t allowed to “gift” public funds.

“What we’ve been encouraging our citizens to do during this crisis is to apply for unemployment benefits,” Foster said. “The federal government has indicated that they’re going to find some relief checks in the mail, and there’s going to be stimulus to the cities and small businesses to help pay these things as they go on.”

He said waiving fees wouldn’t fix the problem.

During the same meeting, the Yelm council passed a resolution to spend $1.89 million out of its sewer reserve fund to pay for the design phase to remodel the wastewater treatment facility.

Council member Cody Colt said it would be wise for the council and city to consider that before they discuss eliminating possible streams of revenue.

Foster said City Administrator Michael Grayum is currently in talks with the office of the Washington state auditor to see what relief the city is legally allowed to give, especially under these unprecedented times.

Council member Joe DePinto suggested temporarily adjusting rates overall for ratepayers to as low as 10 percent of what they’re currently paying.

“Obviously, this has a huge fiscal impact so we shouldn’t do this lightly. But I do believe that is one thing we could consider,” he said.

Carmody, Colt and council members James Blair and Tad Stillwell said they’d like to continue discussions of lower water rates at a later date.

“I would like to see these passed, and then look towards that kind of scenario because we really truly don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stillwell said of the two ordinances before the vote. “It could be a week, could be a month, maybe it’s a non-issue for people, hopefully. But this at least gives a safety net.”

A couple weeks ago, the city announced it would not shut off water for late or delinquent payments due to the worsening economic situation related to the national spread of COVID-19.

DePinto said it’s possible the council could make the decision retroactive. But the decision on cutting water rates depends on what the financial impact could be to the city.

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