$n$ Walla Walla infrastructure program OK'd

Rate hikes will start in June and a bond sale is expected to kick-start construction.

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WALLA WALLA -- The City Council on Wednesday approved the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan, paving the way for replacing 1.5 miles per year of deteriorating roads and underground pipe, and paying for that work with increases in utility rates and $8.8 million in municipal bonds.

With all members present, the plan was unanimously approved, with few objections from Council or people testifying.

The only complaint that was heard repeatedly from the half-dozen or fewer people who testified was they wanted the city to replace more than 1.5 miles of infrastructure per year.

"We would be willing to pay a lot more ... to be sure that we look at tomorrow and not just today," said Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center General Manager Ron Anderson. But he also noted his hotel is the 10th-largest consumer of water in the city.

Also supporting a more ramped-up schedule was Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman John Tombari, who felt the replacement schedule should closer match the 50-year life expectancy of most underground water and sewer pipes.

"Taking it out to 93 years before it gets replaced is going to mean the existing sewer system will be out there double its length of usefulness," Tombari said. But he also noted that paying for the work with utility rate increases would not only hurt homeowners but businesses.

"We are a little afraid that this is going to make the city of Walla Walla a little anti-competitive for business recruiting and business relocations," he said.

The utility rate increases are expected to kick in around the first of June, with the average combined sewer and water bill hikes up about $5.50.

Then over the following five years, water and sewer rates will continue to increase, until by 2015 the combined sewer and water rate will be $36.50 more than what residents were paying prior to the IRRP.

"It is a very modest start; I recognize that," City Manager Nabiel Shawa said, in response to the people who testified they wanted more work done each year. "But we have to be rate sensitive. And this is a modest start. But at least, at the very least ... we are on the cusp of starting," he added.

The Council also unanimously approved the sale of $13 million in municipal bonds, of which $8.8 million will be used to fund IRRP projects for the next five years, until the utility rate increases are high enough to cover the full costs.

The remainder of the $13 million bond will primarily be used for a landfill closure project.

The Council also unanimously approved to dedicate to the IRRP all increased revenues in PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) funds that result from the IRRP rate increases.

Under normal circumstances, the increases in PILT funds, which are a municipal utility tax, would go directly to the general fund. Over the next three years, the excess PILT revenues from the rate increases could amount to roughly $500,000, according to city documents.

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

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