Oak Harbor utility rate decision postponed

The decision that would determine the monthly rate Oak Harbor residents would pay for city-provided utilities over the next four years has been postponed in light of the impacts the COVID-19 health crisis has had on residents.

Much of the rate increase is driven by unanticipated costs associated with the new sewage treatment plant, and in March the Oak Harbor City Council was provided with three different options that would determine how much the utility rates would increase.

During Tuesday’s teleconferenced meeting, the council added a new fourth option.

The first option looked at the utilities with capital improvement projects delayed a few years.

The second option would cancel plans to build an interpretive center in the sewage treatment plant as well as delay the projects. The third option would delay the capital improvement projects and delay the rate increases planned for 2020.

The new fourth option would mirror the second option with the removal of the interpretive center and include a transfer of stabilization funds from the general fund. Rate increases would begin in 2021.

In January, a city consultant presented the council with a proposal for keeping the self-sufficient utility funds solvent into the future. His plan was to increase the rates residents pay for wastewater treatment, water, stormwater and solid waste collection by about $50 over the next five years to a total of $233.41 a month, which would be a 24 percent increase.

The council, however, chose to explore ways to control the increase in rates.

Tuesday night, most of the debate centered around whether or not the rates should be increased during the pandemic. Council members gravitated toward option 4, which would not see a utility rate increase in 2020, but the cost of all the utilities together would increase by $17.85 a month in 2021. Option 2 was also given some consideration as it would have the largest impact in reducing the rate increase this year by $8.48.

Because of the current crisis, council members were wary of increasing the utility rates.

“This time right now does not seem like the time to saddle our small business owners struggling to survive or our citizenry with additional financial burdens,” Councilman Bill Larsen said.

“I don’t think it’s the best time to be adding a rate increase when so many people are suffering so many difficulties.”

Councilman Jeff Mack agreed.

“My constituents are hurting financially,” he said. “Residents are unemployed, worried about how to put food on the table, a roof overhead. Now I cannot be part of inflicting additional hardship and grief.”

Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns said option 4 makes her nervous because it relies on stabilization funds from the general fund which is dependent on revenue.

“We don’t know what our revenue is going to be,” she said. “I would like to be sure we can keep everyone at the city that’s there now employed.”

Councilman Joel Servatius shared concerns about using stabilization funds but added that he would nonetheless support option 4.

“I still think option 2, while it does involve a rate increase,” Servatius said, “it tries to make it as minimal and as absorbable for any of our constituents.”

Councilman Jim Woessner said he was concerned about the lack of public participation during the meetings.

“When we first started the discussion we had several folks show up in the audience you know with questions,” Woessner said.

“And since then we have had several meetings involving this topic and we have yet to get any public comment other than the five letters that we received just recently.”

“I don’t know that all of the citizens of Oak Harbor know what’s going on right now,” he said. “I don’t know that they have as much access to us and they certainly don’t have access to attend a meeting like the folks we saw early on in these discussions.”

In the end the council decided to postpone the decision until the scheduled June 2 meeting.

To submit a public comment, visit oakharbor.org or call 360-279-4504 on the day of the meeting, after 5 p.m.

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