Walla Walla to increase untility taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements

Maggie Allen

Credit: Sloane
Credit: Sloane

Walla Walla City Council is planning to increase utility taxes in order to pave the way for a repairs and replacements to the city’s crumbling public works infrastructure.

The new tax, which goes into effect in January 2010 and would raise the average utility bill by $5.35 per year, will pay for improvements to the city’s sewage, water, and street systems as part of the Infrastructure Sustainability Plan (ISP). Construction will begin in 2011.

“It’s come to a point that our infrastructure is just crumbling under our streets,” said Wrandoll Brenes, city engineer for Walla Walla. “We need and want to create an infrastructure for citizens that is sustainable in the long run…so our business plan needs to have the funds and vision for the future.”

Analysis of Walla Walla’s sewer system by Infiltration and Inflow shows that during the winter, nine million gallons of wastewater flow into the treatment plant per day. However, less than half that amount is received for treatment during the drier months because the broken and deteriorating sewer pipes allow untreated sewage to seep into a shallow aquifer. This is because of the absence of hydrostatic pressure from groundwater that is present during the wetter months.

The water system is also leaking, and the number of leakages has increased each year, according to Walla Walla’s Water Division. One billion gallons per year are lost annually because of broken and undersized pipes. That is equivalent to 1,514 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or 26 percent of the water treated for distribution.

Then there’s the degradation of the streets. Lack of a sound budget and a comprehensive policy to establish methods to repair the streets have prevented necessary patchwork.

With three failing infrastructures, City Council felt the need for the ISP.

“This is the first time that we’ve come together with a comprehensive plan that says that these problems are interrelated and we should address them as a whole together,” said Brenes.

City Council and the town have realized in the last ten years that this job is not a small undertaking.

“It’s come to a point that our infrastructure is just crumbling under our streets,” Brenes said. “We need and want to create an infrastructure for citizens that is sustainable in the long run…so our business plan needs to have the funds and vision for the future.”

The ISP has been developed to address these infrastructure issues. A long-term commitment, the ISP will work on a six year plan to target areas for replacement of all three systems so that future generations may have safe and efficient systems.

“Our infrastructure will affect me as much as it will affect my children and my grandchildren, and sustainability is a way of continuing services in an efficient manner, and that’s what we should do,” said City Council member Jerry Cummings.

At this point, January’s tax increase is the main concern for the City Council and Walla Walla’s citizens.

“Many people living in Walla Walla are trying to keep their homes, and we are looking at raising cost annually for a lot of services,” Cummings said. “The widow or retired person that is living on social security will get no increase in benefits this year but will have to pay for the improved infrastructure. We have to be aware that when we raise these rates, we are raising them on some people that do not have any source of income to pay for those rising costs.”

Mayor Dan Johnson also realizes the hardship new taxes can create.

“It’s going to be harder for the citizens because it’s going to cost more money because you have to repair the whole infrastructure,” Johnson said. “It looks like it’s going to cost an extra thirty dollars [over five years] for each tax payer.”

The plan will also focus on improving sidewalk accessibility at intersections, repairing curb and gutter systems that fail to facilitate management of stormwater runoff, encouraging citizen involvement in streetscape and sidewalk improvement projects, and enhancing the quality of life throughout Walla Walla.

“This is a long process and it’s going to take years,” Johnson said. “You just don’t jump in and do it in a few years, but it’s a good place to start.”

The brains behind this project hope this plan is very successful because it is vital for the citizens and the community, even if it raises taxes.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Cummings said. “You want to get these things done…you want to make it a better society and do what’s right, but at the same time you have to figure out how to satisfy the community.”

The mayor also believes that there is going to be debate and discussion once the new tax goes into effect.

“It’s going to cost money,” Johnson said, “But it’s a great plan to conserve our water because we have leaky pipes. 25 percent of our water is going through leaky pipes and right in the ground instead of going into our system.”

Brenes thinks that this plan will benefit everyone in the long run, even if, at first, it does not seem practical.

“It’s critical for our safety, health, our citizens,” he said. “We need to have a sustainable plan and what we have been living with in the past has not been sustainable.”