Councilors agree to halt 2022 utility rate increases

Utility rates in the City of Sequim will not increase next year.

On Monday night, a majority of city councilors reaffirmed their decision to keep water and sewer rates static until January 2023. It’ll be the second year in a row without any increases due to concerns of COVID-19’s effect on residents.

Councilor Mike Pence said he’s been studying utility rates across the country and he’d prefer reducing costs of a capital project than increase utility rates.

“We’re getting along just fine,” he said.

In the city’s proposed 2022 budget, staff wrote that they assumed council would not want an increase and budgeted for that, but they do recommend a nominal increase to minimize higher rate increases in the future.

At Monday’s virtual council meeting, Sue Hagener, Sequim’s administrative services director, said staff would feel comfortable with a 2-percent increase to utilities to stay close to the city’s policy midpoint reserves through at least 2028.

“It’s better to take a modest increase than a leap,” she said. “Those changes can be extraordinarily painful (to residents).”

Staff said the average utility bill is about $96 for water and sewer and the increase would be about $1.80 with a 2-percent increase.

Deputy Mayor Tom Ferrell, who voted against the motion with councilor Rachel Anderson, said staff showed the city performed well without a utility increase to balance budgets and he felt a 2-percent increase would be “very reasonable.”

Councilor Keith Larkin said if it were a tight budget year he’d consider raising the rates now, but “I think there’s a lot of people going through a tough difficult time, especially small businesses.”

“Even a 2-percent increase wouldn’t be a popular thing,” he said.

Sarah VanAusdle, assistant Public Works director, said that over the last seven years the city has passed on less than a 1-percent increase to residents due to a 25-percent growth in single family accounts in that span and more people sharing the cost of increased expenses.

In her 2022 proposed city budget message, interim city manager Charisse Deschenes said a 0.6-percent increase over the last six years averages to about $0.49 more per ratepayer. The city’s 2020 utility rate study suggests a 4-percent and 2-percent increase for water and sewer rates in 2022 for increased maintenance, labor, materials and other costs.

Hagener said this shows staff’s efforts to follow the council’s direction to minimize financial impacts on residents. She added that Sequim’s utility rates are lower compared to Port Angeles and Port Townsend.

When asked by Pence about potentially changing procedures for recording utility meters, VanAusdle said three staffers read about 3,200 meters in the span of three days. She said with more accounts being added, costs are going up and could lead to another employee hire.

VanAusdle said city staff prefer a consistent date every month for reading meters opposed to one staffer reading meters over five days, and that the city’s water staff have much to do besides reading meters.

Asked by Pence why the city doesn’t incorporate drive-by or Bluetooth readers to cut down on staff time, Hagener said city staff have considered it but some residents have been uneasy with the technology.

VanAusdle said the technology was also expensive and pushed out of the city’s six-year Capital Improvement Plan, but the cost has been decreasing so it may come back up in a few years to be added back on the long-term plan.

Next year’s city budget also proposes eliminating the two-tier sewer rate for single family residences bringing 480 customers to the $59.38 base rate.

City councilors will discuss the 2022 budget again at their next three meetings public hearings set for Nov. 8 and Nov. 22. Utility rates for 2022 will be finalized then. See more at www.sequimwa.gov.

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