New residential customers face $21.48 surcharge under county plan

Friday, March 16, 2001

By NEIL MODIE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

Hooking up to King County's sewer system would cost new residential customers $21.48 a month on top of their regular sewer bills under a plan advanced by County Executive Ron Sims yesterday.

Sims submitted to the County Council a financing scheme designed to have new residents pay the full cost of a greatly expanded sewage collection and treatment system that will serve new growth in King and South Snohomish counties

The expansion and system upgrade -- including a new North End treatment plan, the system's third -- will cost $1.2 billion when completed in 2010.

The sewer "capacity charge," combined with the base sewer rate of $19.75 a month, would cover $900 million of the cost, said Kurt Triplett, deputy director of the county Department of Natural Resources. The remaining $300 million is to be spent upgrading the existing storm-water and sewage system.

"Existing customers have already paid for our current sewage treatment system," Sims said. As the system expands, he argued, "it is only right that those with new hookups pay this additional capacity charge, making growth pay for growth."

Residences hooking up to the system after this year would pay the new capacity charge for 15 years, with a discount for paying it off early. Residential hookups since 1990 pay a capacity charge of $10.50 a month in addition to the base rate, and that surcharge would be unchanged.

County, Seattle and suburban officials agreed to the growth-pays-for-growth concept in 1998, and it was part of the county's regional water quality program subsequently adopted by the County Council.

But Councilwoman Louise Miller, R-Woodinville, chairwoman of the county's Regional Water Quality Committee, remarked yesterday that "The fee is higher than what we were talking about (in 1998), no doubt about that."

Triplett said the capacity charge anticipated at the time of the 1998 agreement was between $17 and $18 a month, but inflation and council-mandated changes in the plan drove up the cost.

"Everybody knew we were going to do this," Triplett contended. But Miller said there may be disagreement over how to define what portion of the system expansion is needed for future growth.

"Everybody thinks we had this discussion, but we didn't," she said.

Members of the County Council's Republican majority in the past have expressed reservations about the surcharge's cost to new residents.

Councilman Larry Phillips, D-Seattle, vice chairman of the Regional Water Quality Committee, said he expects some council members "to want the (existing) ratepayer to subsidize the newcomer, which is the wrong thing to do. The fact of the matter is, existing ratepayers have already paid for this (current) system, so why should they pay for it twice?"

Miller said the surcharge issue, although anticipated, will complicate the county's already troubled sewer-system financing picture.

The energy crisis has driven up the cost of electricity to power the Renton sewage treatment plant, and bond-rating services are demanding that the county wastewater utility build up its reserves to widen the shrinking gap between sewer revenues and debt-service costs. If that doesn't happen, the county might have to pay higher interest rates on bonds it sells.