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"What price growth...?"

Who'll pay rising cost of sewage treatment?

Thurston considers options - and whether fees or connection charges should pay the way

Karen Hucks; The News Tribune

Treating urban Thurston County's sewage over the next 22 years will cost at least $191 million, officials say.

And the question that's been looming above the discussion of how to solve the area's impending sewage treatment problem is coming to a head.

Who should pay: current ratepayers or newcomers?

Wednesday night, citizens got to take a look at the prices and payment options for Lacey-Olympia-Tumwater-Thurston County Wastewater Management Partnership's preferred plan.

Building small treatment facilities as the community grows will cost $191 million - $9 million less than building one large treatment plant that would discharge into Puget Sound around Nisqually Reach, said partnership administrator Mike Sharar.

The partnership serves about 65,000 people and currently discharges up to 22 million gallons of wastewater per day into Budd Inlet.

The new plan calls for reuse of treated wastewater, natural purification of partially treated wastewater and incentives to convince people to use less water.

But it includes one controversial element: discharging more wastewater daily into Budd Inlet during the winter.

If the partnership doesn't get approval from the state Department of Ecology to discharge the wastewater, the cost will be driven up considerably. The smaller-plants plan would cost $231 million - about $55 million less than one big plant.

The partnership has proposed three ways to pay. Two put the burden on newcomers:

If all costs were paid by current customers, rates would jump from $21 per month to $31.50 per month. Each city adds another sewer fee - from $9.71 to $11.70 - so the total rate would be between $41 and $43 per month.

But if growth were to pay completely for itself, fees for developers to hook up to the sewers would increase from $822 to $4,312 per housing unit. As with sewer fees, the three cities also add between $1,348 and $1,836 to the hook-up fees.

But Sharar said the community doesn't have to make an either/or choice.

Ratepayers could take on 28 percent of the costs - which probably would have to be incurred even if the community didn't grow - and newcomers could pay 72 percent.

Utility rates would go from $21 to $24.24, and connection charges would increase from $822 to $3,348.

Raising connection fees sounds like trouble to the Olympia Master Builders, an organization representing home builders through the South Sound.

"It's going to have a significant impact on the construction of homes in Thurston County" - especially lower-cost homes, said Master Builders' government affairs director David Schaffert.

It's gotten hard enough to construct affordable houses in the county, because growth management laws have sent land prices soaring, he said.

"It means that some people won't be able to buy homes," Schaffert said.

But others in the county think newcomers ought to foot the majority of the bill.

Members of the Carnegie Group - a group that believes current residents are unfairly being asked to subsidize newcomers - like the partnership's alternatives.

"Current residents should not have to pay for facilities that wouldn't be needed if it were not for the new growth," said Bernie Friedman, a Carnegie group member. "I don't think we have any complaint about the upgrading of facilities that would be necessary even if nobody moved here."

Sharar offered a reminder: everyone who builds a new house in Thurston County isn't from California. Making settling down in Thurston County unaffordable could mean residents' children wouldn't be able to stay in the county when they leave their parents' houses, he said.

It also could make it impossible for empty-nesters to buy smaller homes.

"If you believe that we have to have some level of growth to sustain an economy ... then you need to be cautious about how much of a burden you put on the connection charge," Sharar said.

Residents and elected officials will get additional opportunities to speak on the issue during the next couple of months.

The final decision about how to pay won't come until the Department of Ecology decides whether to allow more wastewater to be discharged into Budd Inlet.

  • Staff writer Karen Hucks covers Thurston County. Reach her at 1-800-388-8742, Ext. 8660, or by e-mail at kxh@p.tribnet.com

    The News Tribune

    April 02, 1998

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