The Yelm City Council unanimously tabled a recommendation by public works staff to enter into a water and sewer rate forecasting analysis at last Tuesday’s regular meeting, reflecting concern from the council that rate increases could be around the corner.
Council members said they would like to examine the work done so far on the city’s Capital Improvement Plan and timeline — which was paid for in part by a 2017 rate increase — before approving a study.
Public Works Director Chad Bedlington said he expects to give that presentation at the council’s next study session Tuesday, Oct. 1.
The forecasting analysis contract with FCS Group, a regional financial analysis firm, would cost about $29,690. Bedlington said a forecast would be required by the Washington State Department of Ecology before the city could update its Capital Improvement Plan.
According to a staff report drafted by Bedlington, the forecast analysis is a part of a midterm analysis city staff planned to recommend when the council approved an annual water and sewer rate increase back in 2017. That rate increase went to pay for portions of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, operating costs and debt service.
“A regular and comprehensive look at utility rates is a best management practice that has been inconsistent in the past, and this proposed review with FCS Group is being conducted after two years of the most recent rate increases,” the report states.
Belington told the Nisqually Valley News that the forecasting analysis is important because it allows the city to have proper foresight and analysis on what the next 10 years of utility costs look like and future system demands.
“I’ve always felt a third-party evaluation adds some credibility to it,” Bedlington said. “Let’s do this more frequently so we don’t encounter more double-digit rate increases.”
Regardless, council members are looking at this analysis with scrutiny, as it has the potential to bring rate increases for sewer and water customers.
“I think that we need to tap the brakes here a little bit and figure out what exactly we’re doing before we go to letting the community know we’re going to spend another 30 grand to figure out how much we need to charge you,” council member Tracey Wood said at the meeting.
In a Facebook post following the council meeting, council member Molly Carmody also voiced hesitation with moving forward with the forecast.
“We were all pretty upset because, firstly, we thought we were done with raising rates, and secondly, because we thought that they already had this all planned out,” Carmody wrote. “Very, very frustrating on several fronts.”
Council member Cody Colt also asked if the city had the ability to perform a rate forecast in-house instead of contracting the work out.
“I would not say we have the expertise to do it in house,” Bedlington said.
Regardless of what the forecast finds, Yelm City Council is the sole authority that can act on changes of water and sewer rates.
“It’s their decision. Whether to adjust rates, both positively or they could reduce rates at any time. That’s really at their discretion,” Bedlington said.
Bedlington said he hopes their upcoming study session will help alleviate some confusion and give council a better picture of strides made on the CIP timetable, which includes work on the water reclamation facility, and show milestones on the next four months of work.
“We really need to be briefed on where we’re headed,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion.”
Last month, city officials told the Nisqually Valley News that the city’s 25-year-old wastewater treatment facility and its technology are quickly becoming obsolete.
The city council and staff have discussed the construction of a new membrane bio-reactor system that would bring more efficiencies to the system and process cleaner reclaimed water. It would likely cost upwards of $17 million to construct the facilities and install the system, city officials said.