Some Yelm residents are feeling the heat not just in the weather, but in their monthly water bills, and they’re asking why the city’s water rates are so high.
The city says it is charging the rate it must by law: a rate that pays for the utility’s debt, as well as the cost of operating the utility. And the city points out that while water rates are higher in Yelm, some of Yelm’s other utilities are cheaper than in surrounding communities.
Yelm resident Megan Zahringer has expressed frustration with the city’s water rates.
“My friends who live in Olympia and Lacey and all these other areas, their base pay is like $13, $16,” Zahringer said.
Yelm’s base charge for water in 2015 is $32.52. Adding in the base charges for sewer and storm drain, the total base charge for Yelm utility customers is $89.68.
The cost of water has gone up over the years in Yelm. In 2007, the water base charge was $11. The sewer base was $41.06 and the storm drain base was $2.50.
In 2014, the water base charge was $30.04, the sewer base was $52.56, and the storm drain base remained $2.50.
For 2015, the water base is $32.52, the sewer base is $54.66 and the storm drain base is $2.50.
The city uses a tiered rate system for water, so the more water a customer uses, the higher the rate they pay per cubic foot.
Stormwater is the water discharge that runs off impervious surfaces such as rooftops, paved streets and parking lots. The rates vary depending on property size and impervious surface area.
Sewer rates are determined by base flow. Residential accounts are charged a set sewer fee, whereas commercial accounts include a base flow charge plus additional charges when the base flow exceeds 900 cubic feet.
“My main problem is just our base water,” Zahringer said. “I don’t understand it. It was before this water bill even came that I’ve had an issue with the base, because I think last year I called them (the city) because we weren’t home for a full month and we still had a $90 water bill and I was concerned that our neighbors were using our water. But they explained to me that that’s our base pay.”
“Yes, we’re suffering,” said Yelm resident Kathleen Remski. “I feel for people just strictly on a Social Security check, or on a disability check. Where are they getting the extra money to pay this $90 to somebody that maybe gets $1,000 a month in a Social Security or disability check?”
“We’re on a very strict budget,” Zahringer added. “My husband’s our sole provider and I’m a stay-at-home mom with my kids, so our bills are very strictly budgeted. So when I opened this up, I almost passed out.”
Zahringer’s July 2015 bill was for $308, which included a water usage charge of $215.12.
“I was like, mind blown, because I was already blown away from the June bill and so we adjusted things to use less water ... and it was way higher. I was like, ‘How is this possible?’”
Yelm Mayor Ron Harding said an important point people sometimes miss is that their monthly bill actually covers three separate utilities. So people’s high “water” bill is actually a water, sewer and storm water bill.
“Most cities, people would get three separate bills, like phone, cable and power,” Harding said. “What we’ve done in the city is bill it all on one bill.”
While the water rate has gone up because of system improvements, Harding said the sewer system will require improvements in the near future as well, and sewer rates will increase.
“If you compare sewer bills to neighboring cities, you would find our sewer rate … is much lower,” Harding said. “You’ve got to compare it all. Is the water rate higher? I’ve said that. For a small city, we’re experiencing kind of that flux communities get in when they’re growing, but they don’t quite have enough population to spread the costs of those improvements out like some of the other cities do, and that equates to a higher rate in our city than some other cities. Lacey spreads it out over 47,000 people. For us to do the same improvement, we’re spreading that … increase out to 8,500 people. Per capita, the rate is higher.”
But the higher water rate is evened out by lower rates for other utilities, Harding said. For example, the sewer rates are lower; statewide it’s not unusual to have a base sewer rate of $100, he said.
Yelm also has lower property taxes than surrounding communities, having lowered the property tax rate by 1 percent for the past four years.
“No other city in the state has done that,” he said. “The council has looked at other ways to mitigate some of those costs to consumers. We can’t do that through the utility rate, because we’re bound to charge the rate that pays for the debt and operating the utility. We can’t charge less than to operate the utility, so we’ve looked at property taxes, fees for services, and always tried to scale ours down less than other communities. It’s a bit unfair to pick one service out and say on the surface that it’s an unfair rate, because what we’ve done is try to take our system as a whole and make sure that we’re comparable to other communities.”
Harding said the city’s water is a standalone utility, and that the water rates are based on the cost to operate the utility or system.
“In our case we operate a really, really lean system,” he said. “The overhead cost is fairly small for our water system, but that’s one aspect. The second aspect is debt, and the debt is factored into any capital improvements we’ve made and that compounds. ... Anytime we add (improvements) that goes to a debt and compounds the rate.”
During the summer, many factors contribute to high water rates, and it’s not necessarily the utility’s fault, Harding added.
“Generally people start summer off and see this pattern: they start off being diligent about their bill because they understand as they increase usage in the summertime that adds to their bill because that rate is a tiered user rate,” he said. “And that’s where people … get into a bit of trouble with their bill. It’s more about managing that usage, because people start off good, and seem like they’re doing a good job at managing their water usage, and then start to relax a bit, so we’ve seen every August to September range, people will be less strict about how much water they’re using, and let sprinklers on or let kids wash the vehicles or fill the pools up or whatever the circumstances are, whatever adds to that water usage.”
Another factor that affects the city’s water rates is the litigation from the city’s water rights case, which was heard by the state Supreme Court earlier this year. The cost of that litigation gets passed on to the ratepayers — and it must, by law, Harding said. Because of the litigation, the city has been under a microscope and been forced to add some additional improvements to the system that haven’t been added by other jurisdictions, he added.
“If we’re awarded our new water rights and we have more of the commodity to sell and then are able to get more users on the system, that will help us equalize those rates,” Harding said.