Back in February, county officials were predicting that residential sewer rates could soon be in the $50-a-month range.
By Tuesday, those prognosticators were starting to look more and more correct. It’s just a matter of how soon and when the county plans to pay off the expected $148 million wastewater treatment plant that will be built along with the related $105 million in improvements to the sewer system.
“It just depends which way we want to go with the financing,” Bruce Rawls, director of Spokane County utilities, told commissioners.
Earlier this year, commissioners agreed – despite the objections of Commissioner Bonnie Mager – to go ahead and proceed with the construction of the sewage-treatment plant, which will largely serve the residents of Spokane Valley. While a permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River has not been secured from the state Department of Ecology, Rawls said he is confident it will happen by next year.
Members of the Spokane Valley City Council are supportive of the plan and also were updated by the proposed sewer rates on Tuesday.
The commissioners still need to determine which type of bonds it will use to finance the plant, how many years it will take to pay it off – 20 to 25 seems most likely – and at what increments to raise the current $35.34-a-month sewer bill for residents that will cause the least amount of heartburn for bill-payers.
And then, of course, county number-crunchers want to make sure the decided-upon rates actually will be enough to pay for upgrades to the sewer system.
“We’d hate to go to the public with low numbers and then say, ‘Oh, we need to change it,’” Rawls said.
Working in the county’s favor is that while growth projections are down – to around 1.2 or 1.4 percent a year – more and more homes are hooking up to the sewer system as septic tanks are eliminated. Those new connections – about 9,000 between now and 2016 – will help bring the monthly charge down, Rawls said.
Those rates will also be affected by the type of bonds the county opts to use. Revenue bonds are paid back by the sewer rates but would likely carry a higher interest rate than the general-obligation bonds that are repaid through taxes. The county only has so much capacity in the general-obligation category it can use before it endangers its bond rating, advised Marshall Farnell, county chief operating officer.
Rawls has predicted that sewer rates could be $50 or $55 monthly by 2013. Depending on which scenario commissioners decide to use, rates could be anywhere from $37 to $47 a month next year.
What could also affect rates is if the county opts to discharge treated wastewater into the Saltese Flats area during summer months. That option would add to the overall capital costs of the project.
Later that evening, when Rawls made the presentation to the Spokane Valley City Council, Mayor Richard Munson asked what would happen if the county is unable to secure a permit for the plant – which is expected to be completed by 2013 – to discharge into the river. In that case, the possibility exists that no new construction would be allowed in Spokane County as its allowed capacity at Spokane’s wastewater treatment facility would be reached.
“What happens if we have to have a building moratorium?” Munson asked. “How does that affect those figures?”
“We haven’t run that scenario,” Rawls said.
A public hearing on any proposed sewer-rate increases will be held in June.