Ways to lessen future utility rate increases by possibly turning to bond funding for capital projects was a major point of discussion at Tuesday night’s Edmonds City Council meeting.
During a council presentation Tuesday, City of Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams summarized the results of a draft combined utility rate study prepared by the city’s consultant FCS Group. The study recommends rate hikes for all three utilities — water, sewer and stormwater — to cover rising costs that include inflation and the increased maintenance and operations costs, wholesale cost increases from Alderwood Water and Wastewater District (which sells water to the city), and the replacement of aging and failing water, sewer and storm infrastructure.
The city also has to fund a replacement system for the city’s aging sludge incinerator, which will cost the city an estimated $9 million. (The total system cost is estimated at $16 million but the City of Mountlake Terrace, which sends sewage flows to Edmonds to be treated, will pick up the remainder).
The new sludge treatment system will involve a two-step process of drying and pyrolysis — the chemical decomposition of organic materials at high heat with little to no oxygen. This creates both a dried product and a “biochar,” which is sterile and has the appearance of charcoal. The biochar byproduct can be used in city parks or sold as a soil conditioner or amendment.
Under the current utility rate proposal, which citizens will have an opportunity to comment on during a future public hearing, utility rates for 2020-2022 would increase 5 percent annually for water, 9.5 percent annually for stormwater and 7 percent for sewer. By 2022, the combined rate for a single-family home using 10 CCF (centum cubic feet) of water would be 156.63, up from $132.28 in 2019.
In the past, Williams has advocated for rate increases in a “pay as you go” model to fund annual maintenance and replacement projects, noting that it will save the city money in the long run because the city won’t have to issue bonds for those expenses. But several council members Tuesday night suggested revisiting the idea of issuing bonds for at least some of the major capital projects, for several reasons.
Councilmember Diane Buckshnis noted that interest rates for bonds are extraordinarily low and the city should take advantage of that to lessen the burden on ratepayers. “I believe we should look into bonding sooner rather than later,” she said.
Councilmember Dave Teitzel added that he has heard from many residents that “they are fatigued because of taxes.” Teitzel said that given the low rates, he favors bonds “for large one-time capital projects.” He asked Williams to “sharpen your pencil and look for opportunities to use bonding capacity where it makes sense to bring down the rate increase pressure,”
Councilmember Mike Nelson, who said he has also heard concerns from residents about ongoing tax increases, added he views the idea of bonding, or paying off the debt over the project’s lifetime, as “pay as you use.” Because the project costs are distributed to those who use the infrastructure over time, this approach “is often more equitable than using currently available funds,” Nelson said.
Williams said he would incorporate the councilmembers’ suggestions into a revised presentation that would come back to them for review prior to a public hearing.
The council also heard a presentation from Development Services Director Shane Hope on two matters.
The first was related to whether the council should move forward with a proposal to read an Indigenous Peoples Land Acknowledgment statement before public meetings. Such a statement would be a way “of showing respect and correcting the perception that Native peoples are gone from the land or that they have little to offer today’s communities,” Hope said, quoting from a U.S. Department of Arts and Culture statement on the matter.
One example of a statement could be: “We would like to open this meeting with an acknowledgment that we are on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people.”
Hope said that her research indicates that so far, no other cities in Washington are reading such a statement prior to their meetings. The Edmonds Center for the Arts does read one, as does the Edmonds School District. She told the council that representatives from both the Tulalip and Snohomish Tribes have been contacted to get their feedback regarding a statement, but the city has not yet received a response.
Councilmembers agreed it was important to first hear back from the tribes both on whether they favor such a statement and if so, what it should say. In addition, councilmembers acknowledged that the statement could open the door for additional city engagement with the tribes for other activities. Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas suggested the Edmonds Diversity Commission could take the lead on that endeavor.
In another matter, Hope also presented to the council a revised draft Urban Forest Management Plan aimed at addressing concerns expressed about an earlier plan that drew strong public criticism.
Hope said the plan revisions included:
· More attention to native trees of area
· A rewrite of the “Diseases and Pests” section
· Removal of a map and references to specific tree planting opportunity areas (but still encouraging tree planting)
· Modification of statements that are not backed by scientific findings for the region
· More background discussion of tree issues
· Additional information about city regulations for development
· Additional information on selecting trees (“right tree, right place”)
· Additional information on trimming trees
Councilmember Nelson pointed out that goal 1 in the plan states it is to “maintain or enhance” citywide canopy coverage, now estimated at 30 percent. “I think we need to pick one,” Nelson said.
“I’d like it to say ‘enhance,'” added Councilmember Tom Mesaros. “Part of what we want to do is not just hold to where we are but we’d like to get better with this.”
The next step is to have the plan reviewed by the Edmonds Tree Board for its feedback, prior to the council taking action.
Finally, during council comments at the end of the meeting, Councilmember Neil Tibbott reiterated that he is not changing his mind regarding the vote he took last week to halt the controversial Edmonds Street Connector Project. “I want people of our city to be assured that I am not going back on my decision,” Tibbott said. “I don’t want people to be anxious that the connector is coming back, at least not on any action that I would be taking.”
As for what’s next regarding options for emergency waterfront access, Tibbott said he discussed the matter with Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas and the topic will be on a future council meeting agenda.
— By Teresa Wippel