The Astoria City Council voted down a proposal to increase a surcharge that water customers outside city limits pay on top of regular rates, saying it isn’t clear why the increase is necessary.
An increase to 12.5 percent would have brought in an extra $12,500 to the city’s water budget annually — a relatively small amount, said City Councilors Zetty Nemlowill, Cindy Price and Tom Brownson. Outside customers would have paid an additional $1.17 a month.
The councilors said it wasn’t clear what the money raised by the increase would go toward.
Public works staff had recommended increasing the percentage rate charged to outside water customers to 25 percent, the lower end of an industry standard that ranges from 24 to 50 percent, City Support Engineer Cindy Moore said at a meeting in November. Base water rates have risen over the years, but the out-of-town percentage has not changed since 1984.
At a meeting Monday night, Moore and Jeff Harrington, the public works director, said an increase would accomplish several goals, but the primary goal is equity. It costs the city to serve out-of-town customers, they said, a burden not reflected in the current fee structure.
Staff wrote in a memo that the funds obtained from the increase would go toward capital improvement projects, as well as maintenance and operations that serve all of Astoria’s water customers. Harrington and Moore pointed to future needs such as the construction of a clearwell system, estimated to cost anywhere from $1 million to $2 million, that would build capacity and resiliency across the city’s water system. It is an improvement that would be recommended even if there were no water customers outside city limits, they said.
Public works is still in the preliminary stages of figuring out the scope and cost of constructing a clearwell system, Price said, and it wasn’t clear how the money raised by an increase now would contribute.
She wanted to be able to make a clear statement to the water districts about why the city is raising their rates but that — right now — the issue feels muddy, she said.
“We’ve been very thoughtful when we have raised rates on and fees on extracurricular activities and I am certain we want to be as careful if not more so when it comes to water which is a necessity.”
City Manager Brett Estes said there was no need to make a decision Monday night, but that city staff was coming to the council to ask, “What would you like to do? How would you like to move forward?”
Mayor Arline LaMear said an increase to 12.5 percent is what the council asked the staff to bring back.
“I feel like this is at least a beginning to help the Public Works Department meet some of their needs,” she added. “It’s not nearly enough but it’s a partial solution.”
After the resolution failed to pass in a 3-2 vote, with Price, Nemlowill and Brownson voting against it, Councilor Bruce Jones asked if the council as a whole was in favor of an increase or not.
He thought the council had reached a “pretty good compromise” at its meeting in November when they rejected the large jump staff proposed and asked staff to come back with a proposal for an increase to 12.5 percent.
The percentage has to go up, he said, adding that an increase to 12.5 percent is still modest and well under the industry standard.
He wanted to make sure their instructions to staff were very clear after the resolution failed.
“Because what we’ve just decided not to do is bring in what some have referred to as a very small $12,500,” Jones said. “We’ve already spent that much in staff time on this issue and I don’t want to spend it two or three times over again in the next six months to come back with another rock that might not be the right rock.”
Price, Nemlowill and Brownson said they want staff to return with a more detailed breakdown of what is needed and why. Brownson said he is willing to support an increase if he understands it.
“I’m just not understanding it,” Brownson said.
Nemlowill echoed Brownson and added, “The justification for the rate increase seems to me to be a moving target.”