Seattle residents and businesses can expect their utility rates to climb over the next several years.
The City Council approved a plan Monday to raise the city’s combined water, sewage, solid waste and drainage rates for residents more than 20% by 2026 and nearly that much for businesses. The vote on the resolution was 8-0, with Councilmember Lisa Herbold absent.
The plan projects the monthly costs for a typical house and typical apartment will reach $275 and $155, up from $223 and $127 this year, respectively. It projects the monthly cost for a small store will rise about $200, to $1,319.
Seattle Public Utilities says the hikes are needed to cover a range of mounting expenses, including: regular inflation; labor, health care and construction costs expected to increase more rapidly than regular inflation; major capital projects tied to environmental mandates; maintenance work on aging pipes; and utility taxes.
According to annual point-in-time counts, SPU had about 1,537 permanent and temporary employees in 2020, up from 1,394 in 2016.
SPU says the rate bumps could be worse. The organization’s last six-year “strategic business plan,” for 2017-23, projected average annual increases of 5.2% across all customer sectors, whereas the new plan calls for average annual increases of 4.2%. SPU has trimmed cuts and saved money in various ways recently, general manager Mami Hara told council members last month.
A six-year plan that the council approved in 2018 for SPU’s sister organization, Seattle City Light, called for 4.5% average annual increases. City Light provides electricity.
Many residents have struggled to pay their SPU bills during the pandemic. SPU had 8,200 delinquent customer accounts with overdue amounts totaling about $7 million this March, up from 4,500 accounts and about $2.1 million in March 2020.
The city has suspended customer shut-offs and interest charges during the COVID-19 crisis, and SPU has added more customers to a program that provides a 50% discount to certain households, boosting enrollment from 25,000 to 30,000.
Rather than mail postcards to let customers know about the rate hikes, as SPU did in 2017, the organization ran a digital and social media campaign. Council members discussed the increases at three committee meetings held remotely, but zero residents called in to comment on the plan.
“Keeping utility rates low is important because rates are regressive, with lower-income households paying a greater percentage of their income,” Councilmember Alex Pedersen, whose committee reviewed the plan, said Monday. No other council members commented before voting.
Maque DaVis, a 72-year-old Fremont community artist, said he wishes SPU and the council would consider households like his.
DaVis and his wife bring in too much money to qualify for SPU’s 50% discount, which is reserved for households at or below 70% of the state median (about $49,000 for two people), he said. But they will struggle to cover the rate increases, all the same, DaVis said.
“We’re in that doughnut hole,” he said, arguing the discount should instead be pegged to 70% of Seattle’s median income, which is higher than the state’s.