Walla Walla infrastructure plan heads to back burner

The proposal will be subject to public comments and further exploration of funding possibilities.

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WALLA WALLA -- A 70-year citywide plan to replace underground pipes and improve roads is on hold until all funding options have been explored and more public comment meetings have been held.

"I want to take it to the service clubs, have open houses and get businesses and people's recommendations," said new City Manager Nabiel Shawa, who after starting last month is now in the process of studying the Infrastructure Sustainability Plan.

The plan was submitted by the Public Works Department this summer. It in, the department proposed a graduated increase to water and sewer rates for the next six years to pay for replacing the city's eroding infrastructure -- where close to 70 percent of water and sewer pipes are listed in "failing" status.

But under the plan, sewer and water rates would climb 50 percent by 2015 to pay for ongoing projects.

Over the last few weeks, a number of residents have expressed concerns over the increased costs, including representatives with St. Vincent De Paul and Helpline, both of which said increased rates would hurt their utility assistance programs for lower-income families.

Shawa said he is reviewing cost estimates and considering reducing the rate increases for the first two years, in hopes that other funding options may become available later on and a recovering economy will make the increases more acceptable.

The Public Works Department has suggested a 14 percent increase for 2010. But Shawa wants to drastically reduce that increase because "there are some households and businesses struggling right now."

The city manager also made it clear that he agrees with the Public Works Department premise that major infrastructure repair is inevitable.

"There is no easy fix. And the picture that has been fixed for me is that it is now reaching a critical phase, and we cannot stand back and expect a future generation to take care of this problem," he said.

The city is losing 1 billion gallons of potable water per year due to broken and undersized pipes, about 25 percent, and the city is under a state directive to reduce that to 10 percent, Shawa said.

To exacerbate the problem, Shawa noted that during wetter months, rain water leaks into sewer pipes, causing the city to treat more sewage than is actually being produced by businesses and residences.

"It is a terribly wasteful system and we are processing a lot more than what we need," Shawa said.

According to city and state officials, the options for funding are limited to either a voter-approved levy, increases to ratepayers or the general fund.

The possibility of using hotel lodging taxes -- as suggested by St. Vincent De Paul President Skip Lane in a letter to Council members -- isn't an option, said Department of Revenue spokesman Mike Gowrylow. He added that hotel lodging taxes can be used only for tourism development, and the city has already reached the threshold of how much it can charge in this area, which is an additional two-tenths of a percent above the general sales tax.

"Basically it is restricted; it is up to the local governments what constitutes appropriate use. We don't police that but the state auditor does ... So whether infrastructure is an appropriate use, it doesn't sound like it," Gowrylow said,

Shawa plans to report to the Council in December on funding options, cost estimates and creating more community involvement. He added he plans to hold the first Infrastructure Sustainability Plan community meeting in early 2010.

"We are going to make all of these proposals open for public discussion and transparent as possible. I want to hear all the criticisms. And I want to show how much it will cost, where the money will come from and where it will be spent," he said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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