Mayor says he has little choice but to ask for utility rate increase

Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson is proposing a lengthy list of utility rate hikes — to sewer, stormwater, water and even emergency medical services — that could add more than $10 to the average $100 monthly utility bill next year.

And a few council members are flirting with the idea of raising it even higher by increasing the city’s 2 percent utility tax on water and sewer or applying it to stormwater services or, perhaps, even to cable and satellite services, which some other cities in the area have done. “You know, I’m on a fixed income, too, and this impacts me just like everyone else,” Simpson said. “We’ve tried to be good through the hard times, but now we need help. I don’t think we have any other choice here.”

Simpson and Finance Director Kathryn Skolrood proposed the rate hikes during a budget workshop Wednesday night in front of the Aberdeen City Council. Final decisions won’t likely be made until next month.

The city’s looking at increasing EMS rates by 18 percent, sewer rates by 15 percent, water rates by 5 percent and stormwater rates by 8 percent. And, because of increased operational costs from garbage contractor LeMay Enterprises, garbage rates are likely to go up by 2 percent to a customer with a 65-gallon tote picked up twice a month, maybe higher or lower to customers with different plans.

Altogether, a $104.34 monthly utility bill today could go up $10.26 more to $114.60, Skolrood said.

The last time emergency medical services rates went up was in 2009, according to Fire Chief Tom Hubbard. Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe said it’s been about five years since the other utility rates have gone up.

Flash forward to today, and Simpson points out that nearly every utility fund has now exhausted most of its unique reserves that could only be used for those specific utility funds and the city has no choice but to raise rates. “We chose not to raise rates the last few years, which I supported,” Councilman Tim Alstrom said. “If we had, we’d be looking at lower rates now because we would’ve raised rates then.”

Simpson acknowledges that the EMS fund does have about $186,000 in reserve funds, but those funds are being kept to handle any emergency repairs to ambulances. Hubbard noted a time not that long ago when one of the city’s ambulances broke down coming back from Seattle and two paramedics had to huddle together inside the cab with a tow truck driver to get back home. Hubbard said that’s one of the reasons he’s asking the city to fund a new ambulance next year.

“That’s embarrassing and we don’t want that to happen again,” Simpson said.

Council President Kathi Hoder said the only other options are to cut back even more on general fund dollars or to use up the city’s general cash reserves.

“That’s not an option for me,” Hoder said. “I understand we have residents who are hurting, but the city’s hurting, too. And we’ve gone for years without a rate increase.”

“We’ve bit the bullet for the last three to four years and now we’ve run out of reserves in the utility funds,” Councilman Frank Gordon added.

Although rates seem likely to go up, the budget shows that the city has a vacant firefighter-paramedic position, as well as a vacant sewer maintenance position and two vacant water maintenance positions.

Simpson says the city is contractually mandated to fill the firefighter position to keep minimum staffing levels according to the firefighter union’s contract, put in place a few years after the city laid off some firefighters. However, the other positions are not contractually mandated.

“These are required positions and even if we didn’t fill them, they would not impact rates all that much,” Simpson said after the meeting.

Part of the reason rate hikes are needed is to cover the costs of increased labor. Next year’s budget includes contractually guaranteed raises for city employees — 3 percent for employees covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and a 2.7 percent increase for the police and fire unions.

Bledsoe praised Sewer Treatment Plant Manager Kyle Scott for his work in keeping the sewer rate low by thinking outside the box, including renting part of the treatment plant grounds as storage for the adjacent pontoon construction project. Still, Bledsoe pointed out that a new outfall pipeline is needed. Scott noted that Aberdeen has the 14th lowest sewer rate in the state and even with a 15 percent rate hike, it will still be in the bottom 20.

The EMS rate hike is needed because of operational cost increases, including the raises, as well as $196,000 to cover a new ambulance, according to the mayor. Chief Hubbard said a new ambulance is needed because Ford has discontinued its line of ambulances that the city used to get refurbished.