Sammamish in talks to take over water districts

September 10, 2013

By Ari Cetron

New: Sept. 10, 2:37 p.m.

Sammamish officials will begin formal talks to take over the water and sewer districts within the city, although one district seems flatly opposed to the idea.

On Sept. 4, the City Council gave City Manager Ben Yazici authority to open “friendly” discussions about taking over both the Northeast Sammamish Sewer and Water District and the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District.

Yazici cited state law, which he said requires cities to assume control of utility districts within their boundaries.

“I think it’s time we start having some preliminary, friendly discussions,” he said.

The discussions seem prompted, at least in part, by the city of Issaquah, which is in the midst of a study aimed at assuming the part of the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District that lies within Issaquah.

Several of the wells used by the water district are in Issaquah. If Issaquah were to assume control, it would also likely take ownership of those wells.

The wells provide about 50 percent of the water used by the district.

Mayor Tom Odell noted that if that if Issaquah were to take them, there could be some problems for Sammamish customers.

As a result, he said, it’s best for Sammamish to engage in discussions.

One possibility would be that excess water from the other district could be used to help offset the difference.

Councilman Tom Vance stressed that there had been no decisions or demands made at this point.

Councilman John James said there could likely be economies of scale if the city were to assume both districts. He also said assuming the districts wasn’t an attempt to raise taxes.

Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said that while the city needs to be proactive about the possible Issaquah takeover, she had “great reservations” about taking over the Northeast Sammamish Sewer and Water District.

Officials from that district say they see no benefit in being assumed by the city.

Laura Keough, general manager of the Northeast Sammamish Sewer and Water District, said water quality is one of the largest issues for her district.

She notes the district has won numerous water taste contests; last year, it finished second in the nation. She said the water in her district is not chlorinated, as it is in the other district.

She also noted that the district, which has eight employees, runs a lean operation, and she doubts that there would be much savings to customers if the city were to take it over.

Yazici had met with Keough in July to discuss the possibility of a merger.

The district board rejected the offer. In a letter from the district board to the City Council dated Aug. 22, the district states it declined the merger because it does not see a benefit to customers.

The Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District is willing to discuss options, said general manager Jay Krauss.

Krauss said his district is having talks with Sammamish about how best to serve the citizens there.

The board of that disrtict approved a resolution opposing having its assets being assumed unless all other impacted governments agree.

While he said the word “assumption” has not been part of the discussions, he also said that all options are on the table.

Both districts called for a vote of affected residents before any decision is made.


Taking over

State law gives cities the authority to assume water districts that lie within their boundaries.

Beyond that, Sammamish officials say that another part of state law, in fact, requires them to take over water districts and other governmental services typically provided by urban areas. Water district officials disagree.

The crux of the disagreement is the interpretation of the state’s Growth Management Act. The law was designed to help focus development across the state in urban areas to prevent sprawl and preserve open spaces in rural areas.

Also embedded in it are some mandates for how cities should manage their growth.

Kamuron Gurol, Sammamish’s development director, points to two sections of that law which, taken together, act as a mandate for the city to take over water districts.

The first section says that cities are the most appropriate units of local government to provide urban services. The second section states that sewer systems and water systems are considered to be urban services.

Jay Krauss, general manager of the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District, says that the interpretation of those passages is the cause of disagreements across the state. He said that water districts generally argue that the phrasing might encourage cities to take over water districts, but it does not require them to do so.


Customer numbers

Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District serves customers in Sammamish, Issaquah and parts of King County.

The district has a totla of 10,426 sewer customers, 6,500 in Sammamish, 580 in Issaquah, 3,346 in King County. It has 17,191 water customers, 12,382 in Sammamish, 742 in Issaquah, and 4067 in King County.

Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District has 4,750 sewer customers and 3,250 water customers. In some parts of the district, it provides the sewer service while the other district provides water. All of its customers are in Sammamish

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