Nine percent hikes in Kent's water and sewer rates were approved by Kent City Council Wednesday, but it will be at least a month before the first of the increases takes effect.
Council voted on increases for the water, sewer and solid waste rates separately Wednesday. Each was approved, but opposition on two rates and the lack of an emergency clause on a third means they'll start in stages.
A 9 percent increase in water rates was approved with council members John Kuhar, Tracy Wallach and Robin Turner voting against it. The lack of an emergency clause on the vote means the increase won't take effect for 30 days.
Council also approved a 9 percent hike in sewer rates, but not enough council members voted to suspend council rules that require three votes for a new law, so the rate hike will come back to council for a vote in January and again in February — unless the rules are suspended during the January vote.
And council approved a 5 percent increase for solid waste collection rates. Like the sewer rates, council did not approve suspending the rules on the vote, so the solid waste collection rate hike will come back to council for at least one more vote next month.
Turner, Wallach and Kuhar voted against suspending the rules to force the additional votes and cast the only votes against the rate hikes.
Kuhar tried to amend all three rate hike votes so that the increases wouldn't take effect until the city addressed a technical problem with it's billing equipment that involves rate discounts for seniors and low-income disabled Kent residents. The problem is that some senior and low-income disabled residents living in rental units are not getting a discount on their utility bills.
"We were told that there is a way to (fix) it ... so now I’d like to see it done before I support the increases," Wallach said.
Council members who pushed to adopt the rate increases without delay said city administrators were working on the problem.
"I do believe the administration will get that up and running as quickly as possible," Councilman Wayne Wilson said. "For the last three years we have put off putting rate increases in and we are getting behind. The longer we wait the further behind we are going to get."
City administrators said they have had to rely on the city's general fund to bridge budget gaps in the water and sewer departments in recent years.
The rate increases, which city administrators presented to council as a "rate stabilization plan," are meant to pay for major infrastructure maintenance and repair work for water and sewer utilities by spreading out the necessary increases over the next several years instead of creating a large, one-time rate increase.
The rates are expected to increase by 9 percent each year for the next four years. Rates are expected to level off in 2016, but they will still increase annually by 3 percent through 2017 and beyond.
Councilman Jack Amrhein, who pressed city administrators on the discount problem last month, agreed with Wilson Wednesday night.
"This absolutely has to take effect," Amrhein said. "We are falling behind every month."
The rate increases were born in part out of a study the city conducted to determine the costs associated with operating and maintaining the city's water and sewer plants and their associated equipment, which includes 76 miles of water and 64 miles of sewer pipes running beneath the city.
Those studies determined that in the next 20 years the city will have to pay close to $211 million to operate its water and sewer utilities. That cost includes operations, such as employee costs and materials, and replacing equipment that is expected to wear out.
Kuhar said he understands the need for the increases and believes residents do as well. But he said delaying the rate increases until the problem was fixed with the senior and low-income disabled discounts would have made it clear to city administrators that the issue is a priority for council.
"It’s important for the residents to see that we also support the least of them," he said. "We need to stand up for the citizens of the community on this one."