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Letter to the Editor: Fire Commissioner Says Opposition to Prop. 1 Based on Improbable Scenarios

Shoreline Fire Commissioner and SPU Steering Committee member David Harris lays out arguments in favor of Prop. 1, stating that if Shoreline were to own the utility instead of Seattle, Shoreline residents would have say in how utility tax rate is set

To the editor: 

The individuals opposed to Shoreline’s Proposition 1 continually focus on two issues:  the utility tax and the notion that Shoreline Water District should be the one purchasing the Seattle Public Utility (SPU) water utility.  They speak to these issues with some heavy accusations towards the city and some improbable scenarios that they are trying to convince voters will happen, if Shoreline voters pass Prop 1.

Currently, under State law, there is no utility tax limit, to the amount a City can charge a water utility it owns. The opposition claims, the City of Shoreline wants to acquire the water utility, just so it can raise the utility tax to pay for other City services, and they stress there is no limit to what Shoreline can charge. What they fail to mention is that Seattle presently has that same power, which they have exercised with the Shoreline ratepayers.  Seattle currently imposes a 15 percent utility tax on water services to Shoreline. Seattle collects that tax from Shoreline’s SPU ratepayers and it goes into Seattle’s general fund to pay for Seattle’s parks, police, fire, sidewalks, neighborhood centers, etc.  Because the rate is set by the Seattle City Council, Shoreline ratepayers have no say in how the tax is set or in how the money is spent.

If Shoreline were to own the utility, we would have a say in how the utility tax rate is set, and the money collected would go towards Shoreline parks, Shoreline neighborhoods, Shoreline police - our community. The question for Shoreline voters is, would you rather have no input in how much utility tax you pay and have all of the money you pay go to Seattle, or would you rather have a say, and have your money stay here in Shoreline.

What the opposition also fails to mention is the fact that your Shoreline City Council currently has unlimited utility taxing authority with its stormwater and solid waste utilities. Under State law there is no limit to the amount a city may charge for a utility tax for stormwater and solid waste services. However, the City of Shoreline has maintained a 6 percent utility tax on solid waste services since it was first imposed in 2000, and a 6 percent utility tax on stormwater services since it was first imposed in 2005. Since 2000, Seattle’s utility tax on water has gone from 10 percent to 15 percent to 19 percent and then back to 15 percent. 

If the City truly wanted to take over SPU just to hike up the utility tax, why isn’t it doing it now with solid waste and stormwater?  Could it be that the City is interested in acquiring SPU facilities in Shoreline in order to improve water services for residents west of I-5 and giving them a voice in how their utility is operated ?

It is baffling why those who oppose Proposition 1 are so eager to keep Shoreline ratepayers subsidizing Seattle. SPU spokesman, Andy Ryan, stated it best when he said this about Shoreline. “They’re (Shoreline) a profit center for us. We’re making a fair amount of money.” (July 30, 2012, Publicola article Utility Sale to Shoreline Could Cost City $2 Million a Year, Increase Water Rates).  It’s time Shoreline started looking out for itself and stopped being a profit center for Seattle.

The opposition’s other claim is that Shoreline Water District can purchase the water utility from SPU and the city is not letting this happen!  FACT:  SPU has stated that it has no interest in selling the utility to any entity other than the City of Shoreline. As the City of Seattle explains it, this is as a jurisdictional issue between cities and is in keeping with the principles outlined in the Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMA essentially states that urban services should be provided by cities.

The City of Seattle recognizes that for regional planning purposes, it should be the City of Shoreline that controls its water utility. If the City of Shoreline is not the utility operator, then that role should remain with the City of Seattle. If the voters do not pass Prop 1, they will continue to be served by SPU, and have to endure the current state of taxation without any representation. 

Unfortunately, as much as Shoreline Water District hopes that the failure of Prop 1 will open up the possibility of negotiating with Seattle Public Utilities, to own and operate this system, Seattle and SPU have made it clear that will never happen.  Shoreline Water District’s opposition of Prop 1 will never result in SPU offering to sell these facilities to Shoreline Water District.  Unfortunately, the ratepayers lose.

It has taken the City over ten years to finally get to a point where Seattle is prepared to sell the water system, at a price both parties consider fair. Shoreline citizens should not let this opportunity pass us by. With the majority of elected officials in both cities supporting this sale, this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The sale price and separation costs when approved by the voters, leaves no question as to the maximum amount authorized by the voters.  THERE IS NO BLANK CHECK being authorized by us.  The voters are authorizing a specific amount, and that is the amount, that has to be accepted by both SPU and Seattle.

I want my water facilities to be properly maintained and improved as needed, something that has not happened under SPU, but, most of all, I want to have the opportunity and ability to offer my input  when the utility rates and taxes I am asked to pay, are established. City ownership of the water system will allow us, the rate payers, local control. Vote YES on Shoreline Proposition 1.

David Harris

Shoreline Fire Commissioner and SPU Steering Committee member

Truth Seeker October 13, 2012 at 10:39 PM
No one knows what the ultimate costs would be, not even for the purchase itself. Add in replacement of the aging infrastructure, establishment of a department with adequate staffing, and the right to tax the supply of this life necessity, and the picture is very dark indeed, much too dark to accept this proposal on its face. Whatever merit there may be in getting control of Shoreline's water supply, this is not the way to go about it. A NO vote on Prop 1 will give us all a chance to consider other options, especially one that will not replace Seattle taxes on water with Shoreline taxes on water.
Les Nelson October 14, 2012 at 12:06 AM
A followup comment: My reasons for not approving the acquisition were based on likelihood of rates going up, SPU has a far superior maintenance and support system than Shoreline will ever be able to match; as customers we already own the water system …why purchase again; the separation of the system from SPU detracts from system redundancy, detracts from emergency water storage requiring new tanks to be constructed, ….a huge expenditure (many tens of millions), all to avoid taxes going to Seattle. In actuality, Seattle residents are also paying taxes into the water system that get spent on Shoreline Improvements, and the higher water rate covers the cost of pumping water to Shoreline that is not required in Seattle. Shoreline will begin paying pumping costs directly after acquisition. SPU currently has a high approval rating in Shoreline. Carefully consider if you really feel it is worth spending $ 60-90 million simply to allow Shoreline to be in control of taxes. I personally feel it is a wasted public expenditure. Vote No
Les Nelson October 14, 2012 at 12:56 AM
My initial comment did not post, so I am reposting here: Thanks Art for presenting facts. I was asked and did participate as a member of the SPU/Shoreline steering committee and attended all meetings including engineering subcommittee meetings. I agreed to spend my personal time participating as I felt my 38 years experience as a water utility engineer would be valuable to the process. Factual information showing that SPU does an excellent job managing the water system were initially presented by the City of Shoreline Consultant. I was encouraged that a recommendation would be fact based. Unfortunately, as subsequent meetings progressed, it became clear that acquisition cost estimates were being minimized to demonstrate the council goal to keep rates equal to SPU rates. A preconceived agenda was apparent. In the end the mantra that the City continues to propagate, that the SPU system is in poor condition, and that our taxes are being wasted in Seattle came out. A polling of committee members, showed approval based on “faith”, “Shoreline does well managing parks”, “and lets keep our taxes in Shoreline”. At the same meeting it was agreed that it may not be possible to keep rates lower than SPU. A contradiction of the Council goal.
John Behrens October 14, 2012 at 02:21 AM
Mr. Harris's comment about a specific price being authorized is interesting but false. The following are some quotes from the Seattle City Council regarding the proposed sale:Council member Jean Gooden "we simply say we are considering this and it will be no less than 26.6 million for this but it will be negotiated at the time we take up the sale and it probably will not be for a couple of years yet." Council member Harrell,"Okay, so the dollar amount is just of a minimum number" Council member O'Brien" I wanted to have much more analysis before I was willing to commit to any number." Council member Burges,"We have city policies that dictate a process on how we dispose of real property. We've not done that process here." Does this sound like an agreement to you?
John Behrens October 14, 2012 at 02:45 AM
When The city of Shoreline acquires the Ronald Wastewater District it will assume control over the sewer system in the future Point Wells Development. It will then be able to place utility taxes on these bills. Can you imagine the revenues rolling into City Hall? How will they be able to say no to a developer when doing so will cut city revenues. Ronald Wastewater has no such incentive. They do not charge utility taxes and operate basically as a non profit with funds held in reserve to finance repairs and maintenance. They pay for today today. City utility departments finance themselves with bonds, paying for today tomorrow on borrowed money rate payers are responsible for repaying.

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