Infrastructure plan met with questions

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WALLA WALLA -- On the west end of town, in what was once the Washington School gymnasium on Cayuse Street, the second of four town hall-style meetings was held Thursday night to discuss the city's Infrastructure Sustainability Plan, which is a proposal to raise city water and sewer rates by nearly 50 percent over the next five years to pay for replacing miles of deteriorating streets and underground pipes.

"I didn't know where this place was, I had to call the city to find out," attendee Elizabeth Moss said, questioning why city officials decided to hold the meeting at the Walla Walla Housing Authority Gym. But location was only a minor concern for Moss, who was more frustrated over how she and other ratepayers would come up with the extra cash to pay for the proposed increases.

"My concern is where the economy is at right now and which way it is going. We don't even know if we are going to have our jobs or our homes. And to have more taxes on us," Moss said, in an interview after the meeting.

Close to 30 people attended the Thursday night meeting, where City Manager Nabiel Shawa and Public Works Director Craig Sivley took turns explaining different facets of their plan to fix the infrastructure network of underground water and sewer lines and the streets above them.

The majority of the interaction between staff and attendees was in the form of questions from what seemed like mostly supportive home and business owners, who seemed most concerned with what work was being proposed, how their lives would be affected and how long it would be until their streets get fixed.

"Maintaining the city is like maintaining the body," one elderly man said, showing his support for the proposal. "You just got to do what you got to do."

But not all were sold on fixing the infrastructure at all costs, especially when the proposed costs include another municipal bond payment for five years, which would be added to the current bond for improvements to the water treatment facility.

"You got this bond. And so you are going to put another bond on top of this. But when is the homeowner going to see an end to it?" one woman said.

In response, Shawa pointed out that tougher federal regulations in the years to come would most likely lead to a need for more municipal bonds.

"I can't tell you the bond is going to be paid off and then we are going to lower our rates, I just can't stand here and tell you that," Shawa responded.

What Shawa and Sivley did tell the more than two dozen people present was that if approved by City Council, the average ratepayer -- who pays about $95 a month in city utilities -- would see a $4.52 percent increase to his or her monthly bill in the first year. And by 2015 that increase would gradually climb to $27 per month.

In the context of a customer's overall utility bill -- which includes landfill and recycling, as well as sewer and water and other fees -- the proposed $27 increase is about a 28 percent hike in rates. But the water and sewer rates themselves would actually climb roughly 50 percent by 2015.

And there could be numerous other rate increases over the next five years, due to tougher EPA standards for operating landfills and water treatment facilities.

Shawa did touch on of the more costly public health issues city officials will have to act on in the next couple years. The EPA is now requiring Walla Walla, as well as numerous other municipalities across the nation, to set up better water treatment facilities, in an attempt to lower the chance of cryptosporidium outbreaks in communities. Cryptosporidium are single-cell parasitic organisms that inhabit lakes and reservoirs. When ingested by humans they commonly cause diarrhea, and in some cases have caused the death of people with compromised immune systems.

Shawa told the audience that the city is now studying ways to improve its water treatment facility to meet the tougher cryptosporidium thresholds. He added that preliminary figures in the study show that the city might have to pay as much as $25 million to make the required improvements.

A number of assurances were given, including the possibility of forming an Infrastructure Sustainability Plan review panel, which would review projects before and after completion to ensure funds are used properly.

Shawa also said the plan could be under a three-year limit. And if approved this year, the limit would require City Council to approve the rate increases again in 2013.

"If we don't meet the grade, City Council can say forget it and change it," he said.

A variety of optional funding sources were also reviewed by Shawa. They included a .20 percent sales tax increase, a 15-cents-per-$1,000 property tax increase, a $20 motor vehicle tax, a .25 percent real estate sales tax and a possible $30 annual residential street utility fee now being considered by the state Legislature.

The city's next two town hall meetings will take place on March 18 at 7 p.m., Walla Walla Community College Conference Center, room 185; and April 1 at 6:30 p.m., Whitman College Reid Campus Center Ballroom, 280 Boyer Ave.

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

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