According to a report from the city public works and finance departments, the rate increase is needed for investment in a backup water supply and anticipated maintenance of existing infrastructure at the Blue Lake Dam, pictured above. (2015 photo courtesy of Lance Ewers)

Water, water everywhere in Sitka, and there are plenty of drops to drink, but the cost is going up. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Sitka Assembly voted, on second and final reading, to raise water rates by 22 percent to help pay for an additional water source. This wasn’t without push-back from several members who voted against the ordinance, concerns shared by those who voted for it.

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According to a report from the city public works and finance departments, the rate increase is sorely needed for investment in a backup water supply and anticipated maintenance of existing infrastructure at the Blue Lake Dam. The former backup, Indian River, can no longer be used as a backup supply after a change in federal regulations.

According to Chief Finance Officer Jay Sweeney, the city already applied for a loan from the state of Alaska to fund the secondary water source, and the city would not receive funds from the state unless they demonstrated that they could generate the revenue in the water fund to pay off the loan. How? By raising the rates.  

The amount of cash for all purposes in our water fund,” Sweeney said, “is somewhere around 2 to 3 million dollars, and we’re talking a bill of 10 million dollars to pay for an alternative water supply. That means the other 7 would have to come from somewhere.”

According to the memorandum from Sweeney and public works director Mark Harmon, this is the highest rate increase proposed for FY2019. And though it would be a monthly increase of $8.09 for a typical household, some felt like it was asking too much of Sitkans after the increase in summer electric rates and abolishing the senior sales tax incentive program, both decisions that have been met with sizable opposition from the public. Assembly member Aaron Bean, who voted against the ordinance, said he’s concerned for Sitkans who’ve approached him to say they can’t handle all of the increases.

“I think there’s a lot of people that I talk to on the streets that would feel shamed to come down here and say they’re having a hard time making ends meet,” Bean said. “That list seems to be growing.”

Assembly member Bob Potrzuski said while it was frustrating, the assembly needs to make hard decisions in order to provide necessary services. , one he said was necessitated by previous assemblies failing to look to the future.

“It’s a tough spot. But by the same token…if we can’t provide the basic necessities communities provide – water running out of the tap, sewage running away, lights coming on, someone taking the garbage away, I don’t know what kind of a community that is,” he said. “That’s what communities do.”

He also noted that Sitkans are seeing cost-of-living increases all over town, not just tacked onto their utility bills. 

“I look at a loaf of bread that I have to buy for my health is 9 bucks a loaf. I don’t see folks surrounding the grocery store saying ‘Hey, how dare you do that?’ Because it’s not just what the assembly is doing,” Potrzuski said. “There’s a lot of folks that have to charge whatever it is that they charge.”

Ultimately the assembly voted 4-3 in favor of the water rate increase, with Assembly members Aaron Bean, Steven Eisenbeisz and Richard Wein voting against.

The assembly also voted in favor of a 6 percent increase to wastewater- an average increase of about $3.08 per month, to help pay for underground infrastructure and repairs to the wastewater plant. It’s been nearly 40 years since much of Sitka’s wastewater infrastructure was installed.

Richard Wein said that while the fee increase by itself wasn’t massive, paired with all the other increases Sitkans have incurred this year, it might just be…

“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Wein said. “What’s really driving this at the end of the day is not the 36 dollars that will be charged for wastewater, but it’s the 500 dollars a month that will be charged for electricity.”

Though they explored several rate increases over the course of the evening, only a couple of members of the public spoke out against the increases- Chris Spivey was one.

“Stop raising the rates. I’m having people who are actually leaving town because of it, that I have employed. Plain and simple,” Spivey said.

Jay Sweeney, this time speaking as a member of the public in response to the 6 percent increase in wastewater treatment rates, said that people leaving Sitka to seek reduced cost of living in the lower-48 should consider other unanticipated costs like higher gas costs and car mileage, and paying state income tax in most other states.

“Those are real benefits to living in Sitka and it’s just frustrating to me to hear the comments that are made but without the sober counter points made in return,” said Sweeney. “The grass may seem like it’s greener on the other side – but look close. It may not be as green as you think.”

The assembly voted 5-2 in favor with Eisenbeisz and Bean voting against. Then they tackled solid waste, voting 5-2 in favor of raising the rate by 6.5 percent, with Eisenbeisz and Bean voting against.

Overall, with increases to water, wastewater and solid waste rates, the city estimates the average added monthly cost per household at around $14.55 per month.