Bones likely to add $6-$8 to monthly Oak Harbor utility bills

The inadvertent unearthing of a Native American burial ground on Pioneer Way two years ago will likely end up costing the average Oak Harbor utility ratepayers an extra $6 to $8 a month for three years.

The costs also depleted a fund earmarked for road projects and delayed road work.

But while the archaeological work is over, other costs associated with the issue continue to accumulate and could increase rates more in the future.

Oak Harbor Finance Director Doug Merriman presented the City Council with “the cost impacts of archaeology” during a special workshop last Tuesday afternoon.

“We are spending some of our wastewater treatment plant funds on archaeology,” he said, explaining that the city plans to build up funds for the project by gradually increasing sewer rates.

So far, it cost the city $3.4 million to deal with the inadvertent discovery. The archaeological work is completed; the city hired experts to sift through 6,500 yards of dirt in piles throughout the city to find human remains and artifacts, the finance director said.

Merriman said it’s unclear how much more much the city may have to spend.

Reburial costs may be significant if the city must create a new cemetery and rebury the many piles of dirt, as has been proposed. There’s also ongoing legal costs associated with the Swinomish tribe’s lawsuit against the city.

Merriman explained how he allocated the archaeology cost over several different funds based on how much soil was displaced during the project for each utility. A certain amount of soil, for example, was displaced to install water lines and so the water fund was charged accordingly.

The city used $872,000 in real-estate excise taxes to offset the costs. The rest was divided amongst the water, sewer, storm drain and arterial funds.

Merriman said the water fund can absorb the $500,000 in costs assigned to the utility, or rates can be adjusted. The sewer and storm drain funds, however, will need increased revenues.

Rates for the storm drain account will need to increase by about 19 percent for three years.

That may sound like a lot, Merriman said, but it equates to just $2.21 a month extra for a ratepayer.

In addition, the city’s arterial street fund paid out $353,000 for the archaeology costs. The fund, which pays for road construction projects, comes from gas tax dollars.

Merriman said the arterial street projects will have to be cancelled for two to four years unless it’s subsidized by the general fund, or the increased utility taxes that will result from a hike in other utilities. He said the city lost out on a $1 million grant because $50,000 in matching funds weren’t available.

Merriman said a utility rate study, which should be done in November, will incorporate the archaeology costs into rates.

He explained that rates may also increase for other reasons, such as inflation and the wastewater treatment plant project.


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