Water, sewer rates will increase to fund upgrades
By Ann McCreary
Anticipating a generally healthy financial outlook for the town in 2016, Twisp council members approved a budget that provides money for an additional police officer and includes increases in water and sewer rates.
After debating how much to increase sewer rates, the council last week approved a 12 percent increase that will fund some improvements to the sewer system. Water rates will increase 14 percent.
The 2016 budget proposal included a minimum rate increase of 9.5 percent to balance the sewer fund, as is required by state law. Debate among council members focused on whether to approve the minimum necessary to balance the fund, or increase it to pay for maintenance and upgrades to the aging infrastructure.
The 12 percent sewer fee increase would generate an additional $9,000 in 2016, which Public Works Director Andrew Denham said would help pay for needed upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant to make the process of breaking down sewage more efficient.
He mentioned several other projects that are being deferred because of lack of funding. “I don’t refer to it as a wish list. It’s a must list,” Denham said.
Council member Bob Lloyd said he would not approve anything beyond the 9.5 percent increase. “I’m not in favor of doing any more than balance it,” Lloyd said.
Dwight Filer, in his last meeting before his term ends, said the minimum increase is simply “the cost of doing business,” and added that his career as a plumber has illustrated the drawbacks of deferring maintenance to water and sewer systems.
“In my line of work often times if you are willing to spend a little on maintenance it will save money down the road. I’ve experienced that many, many times,” Filer said.
Council member Aaron Studen also cited “long-term benefits” of increasing fees to fund needed improvements in the sewer system. “It’s a small price to pay to make sure we have the resources in the long run to serve everybody,” Studen said.
“While I understand the logic of making an increase bigger, I don’t like the idea of having to explain a budget increase beyond what we need … to balance it,” said council member John Fleming. After listening to the comments of Filer and Studen, he voted for the larger increase. Lloyd voted against it.
Higher water, sewer bills
The result will be a monthly increase of approximately $12.32 in average household bills for water and sewer next year, or a total of about $147.84 more per year.
The town’s general fund budget increased slightly from $907,452 in 2015 to $1,011,107 in 2016. The general fund pays for most of the town’s day-to-day operations such as police and fire protection, planning, building inspections, municipal court, parks, the town clerk’s office and the council and mayor.
During their budget discussion, council members also discussed declining revenues in the town’s street fund, which have dropped over the past five years from $40,000 in 2012 to $15,000 in 2016. Filer blamed past initiatives by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman limiting car registration fees for “gutting the state’s ability to fund road repairs.”
Town council members decided to explore the idea of creating a Transportation Benefit District, which would allow the town to institute a $20 fee for vehicles registered within Twisp to help pay for street maintenance and repairs.
According to data from the state vehicle licensing office, 698 vehicles are registered in Twisp. That would generate almost $14,000 annually for streets.
Council members said after a proposal for a Transportation Benefit District is drafted by town staff, the council will seek input from town residents.
In her budget message to the council, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said Twisp has operated with a police chief and one officer, supplemented with part-time officers, since 2013. The town will be hiring another officer in 2016 at an estimated cost of about $70,000.
She said the past two years of wildfire disasters demonstrated the need for an additional police officer to meet an “increased workload in emergency management” as well as community outreach and narcotics interdiction.
The town is able to afford a new officer in part due to “healthy” financial projections for the town, Ing-Moody said.
She said Washington had the second fastest job growth in the nation last year based on unemployment rates in May 2015 compared to the previous year, and state economists project continued economic growth.
The mayor also cited two legislative changes that will enhance the town’s revenue projections. These include an increase in motor vehicle fuel taxes that will be shared with cities and counties, and a change in liquor revenue distribution that will return more money to cities and counties.
“At the local level … a combination of recent events, including the past two years of wildfire disaster, and the purchase of water rights for the town … has contributed to a noticeable growth in 2015 of new construction and development,” Ing-Moody said.
“This trend is anticipated to continue into 2016. This new growth is expected to, in time, inevitably increase property tax revenues and positively affect retail sales revenues both in the short and long-term.”
Ing-Moody said the past two summers of wildfires, which involved direct threats to Twisp and evacuations of town residents, had a financial impact on the town.
“Although some expenditures are expected to be reimbursed, in part, by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), there are some costs which are solely the responsibility of the town,” Ing-Moody said.
“Increased hours by law enforcement officers, and the need to bolster existing capital infrastructure to meet the needs of our community to ensure continued public safety and uninterrupted delivery of essential services have become paramount priorities of the town,” the mayor said.