February 20, 2013 | LXXII, No. 47

Sleight of hand and food for thought

Letters to the Editor

The town of Coulee Dam began increasing our sewer rate about a year ago. In December, 2011 we were paying a reasonable $37 a month — one month later, our rates were increased by 33 percent! Thinking that there must have been a good reason, we grumbled a bit and accepted it. Then, later that same year, the town sent us a notice that they were going to bump it up another $11… and here we are, now paying $59 a month! Now, that’s an increase of over 60 percent in fewer than 14 months!

Having had enough, petitions began circulating and soon virtually all of us informed Mayor Snow and the town council that we don’t believe in the reasons for the need and we don’t believe the higher rates are justified. We asked to see some “alternatives” to their project and we asked that the rates be rolled back until we do. In reaction to the petition, the Town Council “appeared” concerned and sympathetic, and to demonstrate that they decided to discuss the matter in depth — at their next meeting. Did they?

They invited the Department of Ecology (DOE) to discuss a “value analysis” of/for the project. The DOE did just that and focused on “alternatives” — or rather the lack of them. Just a week earlier, the Indian Health Service hosted a project review meeting in Spokane (Elmer City, the DOE, and the Tribes attended — Coulee Dam did not) and the consensus was also that a review of “alternatives” was crucial. Mayor Snow, in a rare moment of capitulation, commented, “Well, it looks like we got the cart before the horse.”

These issues were raised a year ago and the obvious was ignored … those of us pushing the issue were defined by the mayor, council, and their engineer as uninformed malcontents. In the meantime, the engineer ran up another $150,000 in fees designing a project that may not even be the right project! And now the town will need to spend an additional $50,000 to look at alternatives, something they should have done two (or more) years ago, something their engineer should have done during the planning process!

Then there is the matter of rolling back the rates. Not likely… the mayor and council pronounced that they need the money, in part to pay for work their engineer should have done two or three years ago. In addition to “no rollback,” it is clear they have already decided that another increase will be imposed instead. In less than a year from now, we will be paying $70 per month. What “appeared” to be the town council’s concern about the high rate, was actually nothing more than an orchestrated pretense. As a further consequence, since Coulee Dam considers Elmer City to be “just another customer,” that customer is now looking for alternatives of its own; they won’t be able to afford the increased charges any more than we can. If we lose that “customer,” the rest of us will just have to make up the difference and our sewer charge will likely climb to over $100 per household every month!

Combined, these increases virtually double our sewer bills in just over two years! Mayor Snow tells us we need that money to pay for over $5,200,000 for “improvements and repairs” to the aging sewer treatment plant. That’s interesting since the Town has already identified another project that will solve the “problems” for about $2 million! And if you look at comparable facilities, they could actually build a completely new plant (that would last twice as long and cost less than half as much to operate) for that same $5 million!

Now, back to the matter of rates; the Town’s thinking and logic was that if they begin the process early and “incrementally,” we will get accustomed to the cost. Another way put, they will avoid the public reaction from “sticker shock!” Now, there “may” be good and sound accounting reasons for these rate increases, but I doubt that any of us are duped by the “incremental” sticker shock argument. It’s sorta like paying for a new car five years before you actually take delivery and three years before you even know what make or model!

Some would argue that it’s just wise and prudent to save a bit of money first … to build a nest-egg for the anticipated “down payment.” Others might want to save some extra money to make future car payments in the event of some unexpected family emergency. Yet others might say that they want to save more now so that they can buy a Cadillac later — instead of a perfectly good Chevrolet. Since the town still has not even considered “alternatives,” we can’t know how or for what the money might be spent … we don’t know what we’re buying.

Typically, if you collect funds for a future “anticipated use,” a special fund is set up into which you deposit and track the “extra” fees you are collecting. That way there is accountability, transparency, and a surety of purpose. If I’m told that my government needs the money to pay for a treatment plant, I want to know that I’m paying for that treatment plant! So I asked the mayor and council if the money was being deposited into a special fund, a metaphorical “saving account,” if you will. The answer was a surprising, “Nope, it’s just going into the sewer fund,” which, by the way, is actually only a “partial truth.”

If we (customers) are all being treated equally and fairly, each of us should now be paying that “extra” $22 per month. Last year the town should have collected (and saved) about $110,000. This year they should take in about twice that, or $220,000. Next year another $330,000 - bringing the total “saved,” over the three years, to about $660,000.

Now, what did I mean by a “partial truth?” The town siphons off 18 percent of our sewer fees and transfers that money into the general fund “black hole” for current (non-sewer) expenses. So actually $120,000 (of the $660,000) will not be saved or otherwise available for the project! The rest of the new money is just being deposited into the sewer fund — where it could be spent on a new truck, administrative fees, another project, or other such things the mayor and council may want.

So how much of the new rates will “actually” be spent on the new treatment plant? Although I should know, would like to know, thanks to the town’s sleight-of-hand accounting, I don’t have a “dam” clue! Ask your mayor; ask your councilman… demand an accounting.

Just more food for thought… more reasons for change.

Greg Wilder

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