Utility bills set to increase under measure approved by County Council

Vashon’s Sewer District, members of Washington Association of Water & Sewer Districts challenging law.

Islanders’ utility bills will increase next year when a King County rule requiring utility companies to pay rent goes into effect.

The law — Ordinance 18403 — was passed quietly last November by the King County Council, which took two weeks to move the measure from first introduction to approval. Now, the implementation plan that will ultimately decide how much each utility owes is open for public comment until Thursday, Dec. 7, and agencies such as Puget Sound Energy and the Vashon Sewer District are speaking out against it.

The law requires electric, gas, water and sewer utilities to “provide reasonable compensation” to the county in return for the right to use county road rights of way. All roads on Vashon, aside from private roads, are county-owned and have water mains, power lines, gas lines and, in town, sewer pipes running alongside them in the area designated as the right of way. According to the ordinance, the county currently has 6.9 million feet of rights of way and is not currently compensated for utility companies’ “use of this asset.” King County is expecting to bring in $10 million annually once the law is implemented. Funds will be deposited into the county’s general fund to be used for anything from road maintenance to criminal justice programs.

At the Vashon Sewer District, which serves islanders living in and around the town core, General Manager Jim Gross said the district and most other utilities will pass these fees directly on to the customers. He said sewer customers can expect a monthly increase between $5 and $10 per month.

Meanwhile, King County estimates the impact to taxpayers to be a less than 25-cent monthly increase for each electric and gas bills and a nearly $3 monthly increase for sewer and water. The ordinance indicates the numbers are “speculative for a number of reasons.”

“It should be noted that this is likely to be a worst-case scenario because it assumes that all of the revenue will be passed on and will be passed on equally to all payers,” the ordinance reads.

Both Vashon’s sewer district and Puget Sound Energy (PSE) have spoken out against the law. On Nov. 1, 2016, days before the council passed the ordinance, PSE submitted a letter to the council that lambasted it for its approach which the electric company deemed “wholly inconsistent with the spirit of collaboration we have previously enjoyed.”

PSE’s letter questions the county’s authorization to gather rent from utilities and indicates that the passed law raises significant legal issues.

“The proposal (now passed ordinance) represents a major shift in county policy, with no opportunity for input from the affected parties,” the letter indicates. “The fast-track timing precludes collaboration and forces our hand to aggressively oppose this legislation.”

Joining PSE in opposing the ordinance and taking opposition one step further, Vashon’s Sewer District and 20 other King County utilities that are members of the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts are in the early stages of formally and legally challenging the law.

Eric Frimodt, an attorney with Bellevue’s Inslee Best law firm, is representing the group. He asserts that the county does not have the authority to impose a fee for use of rights of way and says the law is being used as a revenue generator.

“It’s a serial taxing mechanism forced on utilities by the county,” he said. “If a utility doesn’t agree to the fee, the county will forbid them from working in the right of way, but that’s where all the facilities are located.”

The county maintains that it has the right to grant franchises — agreements between it and utilities to use rights of way — which also gives it the right to create this rent payment. Members of the King County Council could not be reached for comment before press time.

King County’s Facilities Maintenance Division is accepting comments on the process to determine each utility’s rent under Ordinance 18403. Comments are being accepted until 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, and can be made here.