The Lynnwood City Council at its Monday, Oct. 10 business meeting held a public hearing regarding a proposed increase in the city’s 2023-28 utility rates. The proposal recommends a 5% increase in water rates, a 21% increase in sewer rates and a 4.25% hike in stormwater rates.
Every three years, the public works department hires a consultant to review the city’s water, sewer and stormwater utility rates and propose needed adjustments. The new utility rate plan will last six years, with a reevaluation of the rates after three years to ensure they are still adequately aligned with inflation.
Senior Project Manager Sergey Tarasov said under the proposal, all three utility rates will increase next year. The average water user will see their bill rise from between $1.74 – $1.91 per billing cycle; average sewer bills will increase by roughly $10; and stormwater charges are set to increase by 61 cents.
Tarasov said one-time fees for new users, called general facility charges, are also set to increase. At the council’s Sept. 19 meeting, Lynnwood Public Works Director Bill Franz said when the sewer charge was first put in place, it was $2,480 per unit. However, the system has been substantially upgraded since that time and the new proposed charge is $10,722.
New prices for the water and stormwater general facility charges have not yet been decided and will be presented to the council at a later time.
Franz said this year’s utility rate study has been significantly different due to Lynnwood’s expected upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant. According to Franz, the plant has not received any upgrades since the late 1980s and is in desperate need of renovations.
The estimated cost for those upgrades is roughly $200 million.
Council President George Hurst asked Franz about water conservation efforts. Noting that the city’s base rate for water utilities is roughly $200 bi-monthly regardless of the amount of water consumed, Hurst asked if there was anything that could be done to encourage Lynnwood residents to reduce their water use.
Franz said the department could look into a tiered billing system, where residents who use significantly more water are charged in a different tier than those who use less. However, since the utility rate study has already been completed, that idea would have to wait until the department’s next three-year evaluation.
Former councilmember Ted Hikel spoke during the public hearing, saying he did not agree with a tiered approach to utility rates. According to Hikel, the county has plenty of water, so he sees no point in encouraging users to conserve it.
Hikel also urged the council to reconsider the extra 6% tax that is added to city utility bills. That extra fee does not benefit the public works department but goes into the city’s general fund. With inflation increasing rapidly, Hikel asked the council to consider removing it to help ease the financial burden on Lynnwood residents.
“Give us a meaningful way of showing that you feel [our pain],” Hikel said.
Community member Chris Casties agreed with Hurst, asking why he was being charged so much when he did everything he could to conserve water.
“I was excited to let my lawn go dormant to save water this year,” he said. However, when Casties’s bill came, he said the charge was no less than when he had been watering his lawn.
Casties only uses roughly 50-60% of the water he is charged for, adding that if he wasn’t already committed to water conservation, he would see no point since he’s being charged for it regardless.
Caroline Judd-Hertzfeldt agreed, saying a tiered system might be the best way to encourage people to conserve water.
“I am an absolute lawn drencher and I know I shouldn’t be,” Judd-Hertzfeldt said. “And I believe that I should pay more. My best friend lets the lawn go dormant, does everything she can to save every ounce of water and she pays the same as me. That is absolutely not right.”
Of the roughly 9,100 water utility bills that were sent out during the last billing cycle, Franz said a little less than one-third were at the base rate. He agreed that while it is frustrating for an individual to feel like they’re being overcharged, most of the base rate is to cover the cost of the system itself and for the privilege of having water readily available in the residence.
Franz said the department can look into a tiered approach or review the idea of lowering the base rate, but told the council it may have severe impacts on revenue.
In addition, the council received the city’s 2023-24 budget Monday night.
“Our current budget was especially challenging because of the uncharted waters that we endured due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell said.
Some parts of the current proposed budget still lag pre-pandemic funding levels, but Frizzell said that is to be expected and she hopes revenue will increase in the coming years.
“We still have many reasons for optimism,” she said. “Our highest factor of optimism is our employees. They are our greatest asset. I’m so proud of our city employees who worked hard to keep the city functioning.”
During public comments, Hikel urged the council to give the budget the attention it deserves. With only 40 days to consider an over $100 million city budget, Hikel said it would be easy to overlook portions that deserve plenty of time and consideration.
The council will receive budget presentations from city staff until Oct. 31. It will vote on the final budget in November after two public hearings are held.
Also during public comments, Joy Keren spoke about the investigation into Councilmember Jim Smith that substantiated claims of racial and sexual discrimination against him.
“I believe that there will be no real change,” Keren said. “I understand that as a council you want to move forward and grow. And I want to offer the perspective that there will be no movement forward or growth. Not because folks don’t want it, but because there has not been acknowledgement of the wrong that has occurred. It just feels like a gloss over.”
Keren said it was unsettling that Councilmember Smith continues to refuse to apologize for his actions, even after multiple councilmembers strongly urged him to do so regardless of how he felt about the investigation.
“Jim Smith is showing cruelty to the folks he is actively harming,” she said. “Whether he agrees with the actions or whether the intent was there or not, there has been harm done and there needs to be acknowledgement.”
In other business, the council approved one of six items proposed to receive allocations from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds – the police flex fund.
Councilmembers Patrick Decker and Josh Binda were absent Monday night and the other councilmembers decided to postpone the approval of five other funding proposals until all councilmembers are present. The council did unanimously approve an ARPA allocation of $20,000 to the Lynnwood Police Department for the flex fund to help struggling Lynnwood residents get back on their feet.
The council also unanimously approved the city’s water main replacement project, a contract supplement for the Poplar Way Bridge and a Lynnwood Convention Center use day for an annual Veterans Association Center dinner.
The Development and Business Services lease extension was approved as well, with Councilmember Smith voting no.
The council also read a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in the City of Lynnwood and welcomed Lila Robinson as the mayor’s new executive assistant.
–By Lauren Reichenbach