Sammamish, Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District at odds over study

April 3, 2014

By Ari Cetron

New: April 3, 12:14 p.m.

Sammamish has been approaching the two water districts within city limits, with an eye toward studying if they should be dissolved.

One of the two, the Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District, is fighting the idea of even doing a study.

“We didn’t see there was any real benefit,” said Laura Keough, the district’s general manager.

In September 2013, the City Council authorized City Manager Ben Yazici to approach each of the districts for “friendly discussions” about studying the issue.

State law envisions city governments as the best qualified entities to handle utilities. While it does not mandate that cities take over utility districts within their boundaries, it encourages cities to do so.

Yazici sited that provision in state law when asking the council to open the discussions.

Shortly after the city approached the Northeast district, which serves about 4,750 sewer customers and 3,280 water customers, the city started getting correspondence in opposition to the move.

Residents in the area wrote to members of the City Council that they like their water district and the taste of their un-chlorinated water – rated No. 2 in the nation last year by the American Water Works Association, a national organization for water utilities.

Northeast water district officials sent out a newsletter listing a series of points for why they thought the city should not pursue the assumption. City officials said the newsletter contained rhetoric that was not completely accurate.

The other district

The Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District, which covers the vast majority of the city, is not involved in this dispute, said Jay Krauss, district general manager.
Last summer, Krauss noted, the Sammamish Plateau district board voted that it would oppose any unilateral action to take over the district. However, it also said it would be willing to enter into a joint study which might discuss topics like how best to serve water district customers and governance issues.
Krauss said the district expects, within the next three to five years, to sit down with the city of Issaquah, and possibly Sammamish, about the best ways to provide utility services.

Who gets a vote
If Sammamish wants to take over any of the water districts, there would first have to be a citywide vote on the issue. Since the city is not currently in the business of providing water, the vote would establish whether the people are interested in the city beginning to do so.
If that vote is affirmative – a simple majority is needed – no further votes would be required. The city could take over the parts of the districts that lay within the city limits, and may be able to assume parts that lay within unincorporated King County as well, depending on how much of the district the city ends up assuming.

Extra layers
One of the central arguments about the takeover is about local control. Tim Larson, Sammamish’s communications director, said that if the city were to assume the water district, it would eliminate a layer of government. District customers would come to City Hall with their problems and the City Council would govern the water system.
Laura Keough, the water district’s general manager, said that people like that extra layer. She said her customers like being able to come in and meet with water district staff, who have deep knowledge about one topic.
Water commissioners deal only with water and can really focus on understanding that issue, which has public health implications, Keough said.
Larson replied that the members of the City Council already deal with complex issues of great public significance, like fire and police services, or environmental regulations.
“Running a water utility is relatively simple compared to other things,” he said.

“In the December newsletter, it appears that they set out to scare their customers, and they succeeded,” said Tim Larson, communications manager for the city. “We got blindsided, sucker-punched, by the newsletter. The city isn’t hell-bent on assuming the northeast water district; we’re just doing our due diligence.”

Many of the charges involve the water district pointing out things the city would be able to do if it assumed the district. For its part, the city generally says that while it could do those things, it has no intention of doing so.

For example, the water district says the city might impose a utility tax if it were to assume the district. Right now, the city cannot impose such a tax on water, since the district is its own government. If the city assumes the district, it could.

Larson points out the city has the right to impose taxes on other utilities, and it never has. Indeed, no member of the City Council has suggested imposing such a tax.

Keough acknowledges that is true today, but that could change when new council members are elected.

Chlorination is another large sticking point. Both sides were adamant that they have no plans to chlorinate the water.

Again, Keough noted the city could, and Larson said the city has no plans to do so.

Keough, however, acknowledged that chlorination is a policy choice made by the body in charge of the utility. As a result, even if the district were to remain separate, its own board could also begin the chlorination process.


Costs and studies

The city is putting the idea of a study on hold for now, Larson said. Before any study could take place, the City Council would first need to approve it.

The study would likely cost around $30,000, Larson said. He noted that follow-up studies could also be warranted, depending on what the initial study finds.

Keough said the water district has budgeted up to $600,000 over the next three years to fight the city on the issue.

Larson said the city considered the study because, in addition to state law, it sees potential cost savings for residents.

If the city were to assume the district, there would no longer be the expense of the commissioner’s salaries, among other things. As in any merger, other staff positions would likely be redundant and therefore eliminated.

Keough said the district does not think there would be any cost savings. She noted the city has overhead costs, such as City Hall and other departments, that the district does not have.

“We don’t have IT (information technology) people. We don’t have an accountant,” Keough said.

The district does have some of its own overhead costs, such as an office that it maintains. If there was a takeover, Keough acknowledged that some district overhead could likely be reduced, but does not think there would be a net cost savings.

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