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"What price growth...?"

Growth must pay its share


The cost of sewer service in urban Thurston County is about to go up.

And the Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County (LOTT) sewer partners are on the right track as they start a community discussion on how to pay for a 20-year, $191 million expansion of the regional sewer system.

Consultants for the LOTT sewer group have broken the costs into two major pieces. One category includes all the expenditures necessary to maintain and operate the wastewater treatment system, even if no new customers were added in the years ahead. It totals about $54.4 million, or 28 percent of the project cost.

The remaining 72 percent of the project cost represents all the new treatment and piping capacity required to serve new customers.

LOTT officials are suggesting that existing ratepayers finance the smaller piece of the overall project and that new customers pay for the rest.

The financing plan is an outgrowth of the idea that growth should pay for its fair share of the costs associated with growth. It's the right kind of logic to apply to expansion of the sewer system.

Not too long ago, sewer ratepayers were being told to expect their LOTT sewer bills to double - even triple - to pay for the expanded sewer system. Now it looks like LOTT could hold the rate hike down to a much more manageable $3.25 a month, which is about a 17 percent hike in the LOTT portion of the monthly sewer bill.

Although utility rate increases are never good news, this one would not take too big of a bite out of the ratepayer's family budget.

The same can't be said for new customers who are either converting their on-site septic system or having their new home hooked up to the sewer.

The sewer hookup fee charged by LOTT would soar nearly 400 percent from the current rate of $818 to almost $3,300.

LOTT would have the dubious distinction of having one of the highest sewer hookup fees in the state.

One can already hear the howls of protest from builders and developers who will view such a sharp boost in hookup fees as an unfair tax on new development.

Raise sewer hookup fees that much, and builders will stop building so-called affordable housing, they claim.

While we understand their concerns, we agree with the growth paying for growth approach.

And in a community that prides itself on environmental stewardship, we should be willing to pay a premium for advanced treatment of waste-water so that water can be reused.

The LOTT sewer partners are working hard to keep an expanding sewer system from driving land-use. They plan to add capacity to the sewer system only as the growth requires it.

This is a much better way to plan for sewers, a far cry from the old way of building a huge new treatment plant with a ton of front-loaded debt service that begs for a rush of new customers as soon as possible to help pay the bill.

By taking small steps forward with satellite water reclamation plants, LOTT can keep debt costs down and build only what is needed when it is needed.

If growth slows down, so does the sewer expansion. If growth speeds up, so does the sewer expansion.

In the weeks ahead, the public will have plenty of chances to critique the financing plan. Although there's room for improvements, the general concept is sound.

Having growth pay for its fair share of expanded service makes sense for sewers and all other public services, too.

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Updated 2007/01/26 19:17:00

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