Water District 19 rates to hike

The district serves 1,486 connections.

Some islanders’ water rates will increase come April 1.

The Water District 19 board of commissioners made the announcement that base rates would increase by 5% and water usage charges by 13% in a letter to customers. As of this year, the district serves 1,486 connections according to its website.

The decision to increase rates was made back during one of the board’s meetings in February.

The higher rates are needed, commissioners Bob Powell, Seth Zuckerman and Mike Weller said, to cover the higher labor costs of a new union contract ratified earlier this year.

“As a district with fewer than 1,500 active connections, we depend on a small team of hard-working operators to produce and deliver safe, clean drinking water,” the commissioners stated. “Our new labor agreement is an investment in that team, which we hope will result in less turnover and a better ability to attract the qualified talent that we need.”

Margie Englund, business negotiations representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 302, told The Beachcomber attracting and retaining good operators for the district is important. She believes the district wasn’t paying waterworks operators enough to bring them in and keep them there. With a new contract, wages should be high enough to retain current employees and hire new ones.

In their recent letter, the commissioners noted the district has a job opening and candidates can apply on the Water District 19 website.

The agreement they and Englund were referring to was one voted on in January after union representatives demanded the board approve the contract, which they had expected the board to vote on that night.

The commissioners, including Powell, initially said at that meeting they were not ready to vote on the contract, but, after a lengthy, heated back-and-forth between the board and union representatives, they went into closed session to discuss further. The contract was then decided on unanimously, providing unionization to waterworks operators in Water District 19.

The district’s general manager, Jim McRae, told The Beachcomber the contract is 20 articles long, covering 47 subject areas that were part of the negotiations. Among them is the operators’ wage structure. McRae said the new structure will “reward” them as they go through their professional certification process and also increase the stipend they receive for on-call work. McRae said the district operates 24/7 and one operator is always on call.

Vacation, health and other benefits will remain the same as before in this newly agreed-to contract, McRae said.

In an email to The Beachcomber, Powell said the decision to raise rates was meant to make them proportionate to the higher labor costs associated with the contract.

“And specifically, not to cut back on the long-planned infrastructure maintenance, which was the only possible alternative,” Powell wrote. “As a tightly-regulated non-profit public entity with a fundamental obligation to provide water, it’s not as if there are any other places to cut expenses; there aren’t.”

Powell said the additional cost of the contract was determined to be about 8% of the overall annual budget. Prior to that finding, he had estimated it would be about 6%.

At the February meeting, the board voted to achieve that target revenue increase by lessening the increase in the base charges, while heightening the usage charges, “so as to lessen the burden on customers who use the least water, and create a greater conservation incentive,” Powell wrote.

Anyone who has questions about the rate changes can call the district’s office at 206-463-9007.

The Water District 19 board of commissioners typically meets on the second Tuesday of every month, in the district’s board room, located at 17630 100th Ave. SW, Vashon.

The board most recently met on the evening of March 10, after The Beachcomber’s press time.

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