Photo by Rich Murphy  — CC BY-NC 2.0.

Photo by Rich Murphy — CC BY-NC 2.0.

How the City should update water rates

August 2, 2015 12:01 by Ryan

As the sunlight has streamed into City Hall during the last two years, one thing has become extraordinarily clear: we’ve been substantially underfunding our infrastructure. One of our largest problems right now is that we need to refurbish the City’s 3-million-gallon water tank on Whistle Lake Road, and we have essentially no reserves in our retail water funds to pay for it.

The initial staff proposal was to borrow money from general revenue to pay for the tank’s refurbishment. The problem with that is we’d have to borrow all of the money over just five years, and the water utility funds would have to pay interest to the general revenue funds, necessitating a substantial increase in retail water rates. The staff proposal to structure those rates was simply to double the base rate (currently about $10).

When we discussed this issue at City Council early this year, I proposed instead that we apply to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for a loan for the money required to refurbish the 3-million-gallon tank. The DWSRF loans are extremely low interest (as low as 1%), and would result in an lower immediate cost to ratepayers. The loan application period starts September 1, and we should find out around the end of year if we are accepted.

Next, I argue we should change our water rate structure so that customers are incentivized to conserve water, and pay significantly more if they choose not to. The staff proposal to simply double the base rate would negatively incentivize water conservation and be a significant burden on customers that use small amounts of water. My water bill, for example, is regularly about $12—which is only $2 more than what I’d pay if I used no water at all.

There are three problems with our current water rate schedule:

1. We are not collecting enough revenue to pay for our infrastructure costs.

2. Our flat base charge is too large in comparison to our small demand charge (per gallon of water).

3. Our demand charge is the same rate whether you’re using a few gallons or many thousands of gallons.

Problem #1 is making us scramble to find money for the 3-million-gallon tank, and we’re seeing water line breaks because we’re not quickly enough replacing our aging pipe infrastructure. We need to spend more money on both.

Problems #2 and #3 result in making our fee schedule regressive, impacting small water users proportionately more than large ones; and so customers using a lot of water don’t feel much increased cost so there’s not a significant price signal to conserve.

As you can see from this Association of Washington Cities utilities fees survey, many jurisdictions have a progressive, inclining fee structure, where the demand rate increases as you use more water. Your first 1000 cubic feet might be charged at $50/cf, but your next 1000 cubic feet is charged at $70/cf, providing a significantly greater disincentive to waste water. (1 cf is about 7.5 gallons.) We can structure our schedule to reduce the fiscal impact on small water users, while making large users pay an appropriately larger share.

Many councilmembers and staff are reluctant to move to an inclining-fee structure, mainly because it would be more complicated to calculate, but also because…it might incentivize people to conserve water, and thus reduce revenue. But many cities are able to make an inclining fee structure work just fine—92 cities in the 2012 AWC survey have an inclining-fee structure, versus only 47 for our uniform-block-style structure. We have absolute control over water rates, so we can adjust them as necessary to meet our revenue targets, while providing proper incentives and price signals to ensure conservation.

When the City Council last discussed this in the spring, we directed that staff bring back to us a new water rates proposal as soon as possible, so that we could begin phasing in new water rates slowly. Staff hasn’t gotten back to us yet. We eventually will revisit this issue sometime this year, and I hope you will provide comment to the City Council at that time about how important this issue is.

City Forum on Oil Train Safety

May 11, 2015 21:19 by Ryan

cp-railCouncilmember Liz Lovelett and I hosted a community forum on oil by rail—safety, preparedness, and response—last Wednesday in the City Council chambers. Councilmembers Adams, Pickett, and Johnson also attended and assisted with the event. As promised, here are some resources mentioned at the event. Video of the event is available on the City website.

Emergency resources:

Preparedness resources:

Media coverage of the event:

All-Wards Community Meeting March 31

March 23, 2015 11:07 by Ryan

It's that time again... Councilmembers Eric Johnson, Brad Adams, and I are holding a community meeting on Tuesday, March 31, at 6:30 pm at the public library's main meeting room.

Come chat with us about the city issues that matter to you! We'll be available to answer questions, hear complaints, and discuss policy. There may even be refreshments!

Hope to see you there!

Community Budget Open House

March 8, 2015 11:37 by Ryan

As the kickoff to our enhanced budget process this year, the City of Anacortes is holding an open house this Tuesday from 4:30-6pm in the council chambers at city hall.

Department heads will host tables about their departments and take your comments and answer questions about the services they provide. (They'll be taking notes!) City Councilmembers and the mayor will also be available to chat with attendees. There may be refreshments.

Tell us what you want the City to focus on, what we're doing well, and what we can do better! This event is an opportunity for people to interact directly with the managers providing city services, and have free-form dialog with your elected officials.

The event is loosely based on the White House's somewhat-fictional Big Block of Cheese Day, made popular by the television show The West Wing.

See you there!

We’re Ready for a Full-Time City Attorney

November 1, 2014 23:17 by Ryan

Anacortes is the only city in Skagit County without a full-time employee city attorney. Each of our neighboring cities (including Bellingham, Burlington, Mount Vernon, Oak Harbor, and Sedro-Woolley) has a full-time employee serving as their city attorney. Bellingham and Oak Harbor have multiple employees in that role, and Sedro-Woolley has a combined city supervisor/city attorney position. Skagit County, likewise, has more than five FTE civil attorneys, of which I am one.

Mayor Gere has added a full-time employee city attorney to the 2015 preliminary budget. I strongly support the addition of a full-time city attorney, but not all the other councilmembers are convinced. Here’s why it’s important:

We’d save money. The mayor’s 2015 budget proposal includes $120,000 salary plus benefits for a full-time city attorney. I think that we can probably hire cheaper than that—the City of Burlington’s 2013 salary schedule for City Attorney ranged from $95,000 to $106,000/year—but it’s a deal at almost twice the price.

Just because we don’t have an employee city attorney doesn’t mean we don’t spend a lot of money on legal services. In 2013, we spent $231,731 on outside counsel, not counting the prosecuting attorney. Almost $70,000 of that went to our primary contractor, Brad Furlong, but the remaining $162,000 went to Seattle law firms (some of which bill at $500/hour).

The table below lists our outside counsel expenses over the last four years:

 2011201220132014 (Q1-3)2014 (est)
Furlong/Butler  $41,172  $57,617 $69,176 $52,905 $70,540
Stoel Rives $39,331 $39,415 $52,553
Foster Pepper  $83,689  $110,504 $93,186 $24,447 $32,596
Ogden Murphy $3,402 $1,035 $1,380
Summit Law  $85  $1,798 $560 $3,313 $4,417
Susan Drummond  $4,468  $5,120 $24,063 - -
Total  $131,425  $177,051 $231,731 $121,115 $161,487

If we hire a full-time employee city attorney at $120k plus benefits, we may be able to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside counsel expenses. (For comparison, the City of Mount Vernon budgets just $20,000 for outside legal services.) And when we have a full-time city attorney, we’ll have someone in the office for 40+ hours per week—much more dedicated time than we currently get, and much better value for the money. Over time, the city attorney might also consolidate some work with the city prosecutor (another $66,000 contract), like Oak Harbor does.

An inherent problem with outside counsel is that contract attorneys don’t have incentives to minimize time or cost—in fact, their incentives are to maximize complexity and billable hours. Remember the Tethys contract? It cost Anacortes $48k to have outside counsel draft that ill-fated document. An in-house city attorney without the need to generate billable hours might have started with a different approach—perhaps asking “let’s first consider if this is a good idea.” Remember our proposed Anacortes Municipal Code Title 19 to consolidate our land use procedures in a new title? We spent $13k for review of that document, but it’s still not ready for adoption. It’s much easier to set expectations for and review performance of an in-house attorney over a one-time contractor.

We’d protect the City from liability and improve governance. Having a city attorney is critical to risk management. One problem I’ve flagged many times before is that contracts are not regularly submitted to our city attorney for review before council adoption. The City needs standardized form agreements and new procedures to ensure that we have proper review, defined scopes of work, indemnification provisions, and proof of insurance before entering into agreements. And a fulltime employee city attorney could keep abreast of looming issues of substantial risk to the City—like the requirement to provide adequate defense for the indigent—that have never been identified for our City Council’s review.

We’d get better advice. A separate, but unavoidable problem with having a contract attorney that bills by the hour is that non-attorney staff make decisions about whether to call the attorney for advice based on how much they think the attorney will charge. An employee attorney that doesn’t bill by the hour can be expected to provide more accurate assessments of the need to investigate a legal problem. Additionally, City staff frequently rely on advice from WA Cities Insurance Authority or Municipal Research and Services Center, which are useful resources, but are not substitutes for advice from an attorney that is familiar with the City’s unique circumstances.

We’d get more done. The state and federal laws that govern municipalities are many and complex. Staff need assistance drafting proper ordinances and resolutions. The Planning Department needs a city attorney to assist in code enforcement matters, in drafting our new development code, and in answering complex permitting questions. The Parks Department regularly needs assistance with property sales and acquisitions. In many areas, the City would benefit from having an attorney’s assistance available all the time.

We’d keep the money local. A final problem with our current practice of spending all this money on outside counsel is that none of these attorneys live in our community. If we hired an employee city attorney, we could require that person to live here—both so that he or she would have some skin in the game, but also so that the City would be keeping those salary dollars in our local economy.

Your voice matters! If you want to tell the City Council what you think, attend the public hearing on the budget scheduled for Monday, November 3, at 7pm, at City Hall. Or email the City Council at citycouncil@cityofanacortes.org. We’ll likely adopt the budget on November 17.

Ward 1 Meeting

June 25, 2014 20:13 by Ryan

We had a great meeting last night at the library—one of the ones I host about every quarter. Among other topics, we discussed:

New garbage totes. Some people are dissatisfied with the different shape (and apparent smaller size) of the new automated garbage totes. The totes are printed with the City logo, and are not returnable to the seller. So what can we do?

First, make sure you were delivered the correct size tote. The tote size is printed on the lid, and your city utility bill indicates what level of service you’ve selected. The bill will say 20 or 32 gallon service, but the new small totes are actually larger than you had before at 24 gallons each. (The next size up is still a 32-gallon tote.)

Second, try packing your new tote differently. Because the actual volume is in fact larger than you had before, the only new constraint is the shape of the tote. Try removing bulky items from your trash bags and packing them in separately, or try flattening the trash bags before putting them into the totes.

Finally, consider whether you want to change your service level. Don’t just trade totes with a neighbor (because each one has a serial number and is registered to your account). Call the City at 293-1900 and ask to change your solid waste service. Your options for residential totes:

  • one small tote: $7
  • one medium totes: $13
  • two medium totes: $23
  • three medium totes: $33

Note that larger totes (of 64 gallons or 96 gallons, like our recycle and yard waste bins) are not available for residential services.

Holiday garbage pickup. People also expressed the (recurring) concern about not having garbage pickup in weeks with holidays on pickup day. For Monday pickup, which is much of Ward 1, a lot of holidays fall on pick up days, requiring residents to hold trash for two weeks, and now requiring truck operators to get out of their trucks to pick up trash by hand—which our new automation system is intended to avoid.

I’ve been pushing for every-week pickup for the last 30 months, and now we might actually be finally moving closer; at the end of next year, our recycle and yard waste contracts will simultaneously end and we’ll be able to bid out both services together to a single provider. That’ll provide an opportunity to require those providers to pick up every week, and we can direct our own solid waste staff to do the same. I’ll also be pushing for better options in terms of food waste pickup, so that residents without a 96-gallon yard waste bin will get options for smaller containers at reduced cost.

N Ave Park. Several residents asked about what we could do to continue improvements to N Ave Park—about half an acre at the north end of N Avenue between Trident and Reisner. I recommend people that are interested in pushing for park improvements contact our city councilmembers on the City Council Parks Committee—Brad Adams, Erica Pickett, Liz Lovelett—and asking for that to be prioritized. On July 21, we’ll be holding a public hearing on the Capital Facilities Plan, and that would be a good opportunity to advocate for park improvements before the entire City Council.

Some other park-related items:

  • The entire City Council and the mayor seem to agree that we must replace the Storvik Park bathrooms next year. That is likely to finally actually happen. The upper bathrooms at Washington Park are also a priority.
  • I’m pushing for us to prioritize our existing project to plant the wetlands at the H Ave Park (a project that has been in our plan since 2006), especially because those wetlands may help us deal with the fecal coliform pollution problem we have in that area.
  • I’m excited that we’ll finally be making improvements to the City’s cemetery in the next few years with funds from the Water Utility after it purchases some unused cemetery property to construct a replacement water tower on the east side of Whistle Lake Road.
  • By 2018, we may be moving forward with a pocket Commercial Ave park between Penguin Coffee and Select Styling in the unused alley on that block. Residents agreed it was a great idea, but appropriately de-prioritized over the necessary improvements to our existing parks.

Streets. As you’ve probably read, the City Council is considering a pavement improvement initiative, which I’ll write more about later. Residents seem supportive of the proposed $20 car tabs and 9-percentage-point increase in the solid waste tax that would help fund the initiative. I expressed my commitment to not authorize more money for streets without a concrete plan for what streets we would actually pave.

Marijuana. We currently have a moratorium on recreational marijuana facilities (all three types: retail, processing, and production). The public hearing on our permanent regulations was continued to July 7, after which we may adopt the permanent regulations which would allow retail marijuana in the Commercial zone and LM1 zone, and production and processing in just the LM1 zone. You can see the zoning map here.

We recently imposed a new moratorium on medical marijuana after the State Court of Appeals for Division 1 ruled in Cannabis Action v City of Kent that the medical marijuana statute doesn’t actually make medical marijuana or collective gardens legal. We’ll be doing more with this, but I don’t expect we’ll allow collective gardens again. Instead, we expect the state Legislature to reform the medical marijuana statute and eliminate the unregulated collective gardens in favor of only allowing the highly-regulated recreational establishments.

Oversized Parking on Residential Streets. The Council has been working on regulations that would largely prohibit parking oversize vehicles, RVs, and boats in the city right-of-way. Our Planning Department is resource-constrained right now, but we’re continuing to push for these regulations to get completed. Some people suggested continuing to allow oversized parking, but by permit only.

Blue tarps and code enforcement. Residents continued to ask for more and better enforcement of our land use codes, especially to eliminate temporary tarps and tent buildings. I believe we’d be much more effective at code enforcement if we had a city attorney, but we also simply need the administration to be more aggressive at code enforcement. If you have a complaint, you can submit a complaint form to the Building Department.

Semitrucks on M Avenue. Heavy trucks continue to damage our residential streets. The Council passed an ordinance last year (now codified at AMC Chapter 10.24) that restricts big trucks to designated truck routes in the City…but we still have a long way to go in terms of making the ordinance effective. More signs are clearly needed. I suggested we phase in larger fines. Some suggested photo enforcement. We’ll continue to investigate solutions through the City Council Public Works Committee.

Dealing with the Dangers of Oil Trains

May 14, 2014 00:17 by Ryan

With the recent emphasis on the dangers of transporting volatile Bakken crude oil by train, it’s important to point out that we on the City Council are cognizant of some of these dangers, and have been working to educate ourselves and look for opportunities to protect our community. We already have one refinery, Tesoro, receiving a 100-car oil train each day. The other Anacortes refinery, Shell, is currently engaged in permitting its own facility.

oil-trains-roy-luckIn February, Mayor Gere and Councilmembers Eric Johnson, Liz Lovelett, and I attended a rail safety roundtable with Congressman Rick Larsen. The mayors of Burlington and Mount Vernon, County Commissioner Ron Wesen, and Department of Emergency Management and fire officials also attended. Congressman Larsen was well-versed in many of the safety and environmental issues around the transport of oil by rail and briefed us on the agreement brokered by US DOT with railroads to lower speeds to 40 mph near and within very large cities, to conduct an additional track inspection per year, and provide $5 million nationally for additional first responder training. Each of the participants brought a number of concerns to the table, with the mayor of Burlington especially focused on the aging railroad bridge over the Skagit River—a bridge just upstream from the intake for the City of Anacortes’s water treatment plant.

During the legislative session, Councilmember Lovelett and I signed on to a letter in support of HB 2347, which would have, among other things, required oil refineries to report the number of rail cars and type and volume of oil they are receiving, and the routes that the rail cars are taking to the refineries, and directed the Office of Financial Management to conduct a study of the State's capacity to respond to oil train accidents. The bill died in the Senate, but will be considered again next year.

In April, first responders from Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Skagit County Department of Emergency Management performed a tabletop oil spill response drill. These exercises help identify additional needs and strategies for responses.

At last week’s City Council meeting, we received a courtesy presentation from the general manager of Shell Puget Sound Refinery on their proposed rail facility at March Point. (The Anacortes refineries are not inside the city limits, so permitting is handled by the County, not the City of Anacortes.) We were generally impressed by the safety measures Shell is designing into their new facility, and Shell committed at the meeting to fully complying with the latest federal standards for rail car design at the time its facility is built, but we still had many unanswered questions about the rail transport itself. Railroads are the jurisdiction of the federal government, not the city or state, and that’s where we need to focus our efforts at achieving regulation that will prevent spills and explosions.

To that end, Councilmember Lovelett and I have drafted a resolution that would add our voice to the growing list of communities (including Bellingham, Seattle, Spokane, and Whatcom County) that have passed resolutions urging federal regulators to adopt strict rules governing the types of rail cars allowed to transport Bakken crude oil. The resolution as drafted also urges required third-party inspections of critical rail infrastructure—such as the Skagit River bridge and the Swinomish Channel swing bridge—and disclosure of those structural inspections to local communities.

The City Council will consider the resolution next week at its meeting Monday night at 7pm. It’s our hope that the Council’s adoption of the resolution will spur the federal government to action, before more refinery rail facilities are permitted, and before more railcars are purchased that don’t meet the standards required to prevent spills and explosions.

Update: the City Council adopted Resolution 1889 on July 21, 2014.

Council Visit to Quimper Mercantile

April 12, 2014 14:58 by Ryan

IMG_0918

At Monday night’s City Council meeting (April 14) Eric Johnson, Liz Lovelett, and I will report on our March 10 visit to the Quimper Mercantile in Port Townsend. Inspired by our recent Council debate on the proposal to bring a Fred Meyer to the MJB property east of R Ave, our visit included interviews with the store management.

I’ll update this post with more information after our presentation Monday night.

Sign Up NOW for the City Talent Bank

April 8, 2014 22:53 by Ryan

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Our community is blessed with a wealth of talent and experience. In these times of declining revenues and big challenges, our city needs your help more than ever! That’s why we’ve created a Talent Bank—a roster of volunteers the City can call upon to leverage their skills and expertise for our community’s benefit. The Mayor also uses the Talent Bank as a unified application pool for appointments to City boards and commissions.

Download and submit an application online. Volunteer today!

How do we get more general retail in town?

February 22, 2014 11:52 by Ryan

On Monday, the City Council voted to deny MJB’s latest proposal for a box store on their property on R Ave south of the skate park. The process that led to that decision received quite a bit of public testimony and interest, thanks to the City Council deciding to hold its own public hearing; the local community’s efforts to get the word out, both pro and con; and Mayor Gere’s expert administration of our meetings. Thank you to all who participated!

Many people testified that a big box store is out of scale with our community, and I certainly do not support an out-of-scale development. The proposal was for a 105,000 sq ft store, which, while larger than Safeway (50,000 sq ft), is significantly smaller than the 175,000 sq ft Fred Meyer in Burlington, which is approximately the size of our Safeway and its parking lot. But it’s not dramatically out of scale with other uses in our community; for example, the hospital complex exceeds 200,000 sq ft. The main high school football field is more than 190,000 sq ft. Based on my review of the footprints of these existing uses, I believe a Fred Meyer of 105,000 sq ft stretching two blocks along R Ave and less deep than the Salvation Army parking lot could be made compatible with smart architectural design.

Potential FM Size Map

At the meeting, I proposed an alternative to the language we’d been asked to approve. In my proposal, we’d leave the property zoned industrial, so that industrial uses could still locate there, but also would amend the text for the industrial zone so that a 100,000 sq ft retail store could locate on R Ave if it met specific criteria to address its environmental and visual impact, and if it agreed to a development agreement with the City. Requiring a development agreement would provide for public input and a public hearing, and would give the City Council the ability to exercise its legislative and contract authority to control some aspects of the development. My proposal would not allow a new commercial area on R Ave; it would limit new commercial development to a single mid-size store.

I understand that many people feel a new box store of any size is undesirable. But what also weighs heavily on me is the realization that we cannot plan in a vacuum; we have to take into account what our neighbors are doing. My biggest worry is that we do get a Fred Meyer—a full-size Fred Meyer, located just outside the city limits on the reservation, where it has all the negative effects we fear from a full-size big box store, but where we have no ability to control its impacts or its size, and receive none of the tax revenue. Allowing a mid-size Fred Meyer may have been our best opportunity to prevent that.

I also appreciate and share the concerns of many who testified that a big corporate franchise will negatively affect the culture and identity of Anacortes. As we continue to talk about these issues in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update, I hope that our local entrepreneurs consider starting an independent general merchandise retail store, with or without groceries. I plan to pay a visit soon to Quimper Mercantile, a store owned by the local community that supplies “a broad selection of general merchandise,” that recently opened in Port Townsend. Woolley Market, featuring “real food from around here” as well as household goods and other local products, plans to open this summer in Sedro-Woolley. We might be entering a new era of independent mid-size retailers—and Anacortes needs only a local entrepreneur to step up and make that happen for us.

This discussion, along with many others, will now continue as part of the purely legislative (and not quasi-judicial) process that is 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update, where the community will be completely free to interact with its elected officials. Look for more on the Comprehensive Plan and the update process soon on this blog.