I received the following email from a reader. He explains the issue quite well, so I’ll let his message do all the talking:
My wife and I bought our home a year ago in Mill Creek, Snohomish County. On Friday, we received a bill from King County instructing us that we owed them over $2,000, payable in 48 easy monthly installments. This bill was for sewer capacity. The previous owner had stopped paying this bill.
Needless to say, I was a little confused. We already paid Alderwood Wastewater a sewer bill every month. Anyway, I did a little looking, and it looks like Snohomish struck a bargain with King County that it could charge Snohomish County citizens big bucks for having their sewage treated in King County. I already pay for a sewer bill with Alderwood, but apparently this involves them carting it to King County.
My main bone of contention: for all new homes, the amount of sewer capacity debt a buyer takes on is a pretty hefty $10,000. Why is this not billed to developers? The FAQ says, helpfully: ‘because that’s how we wrote the law.’
I think you and I know why. If Snohomish and King home buyers knew they were taking on $10,000 of debt on top of the price of the home, they might not buy. Fewer short sales would go through, and the housing market could be more depressed. The alternative? Sneak that big bill in under the radar!
Their phone line makes it clear that whether or not the charges are known to the home buyer, they’re on the hook! And there’s absolutely no recourse, short of selling the home and passing it off to some other sucker (while paying a fortune in fees)
When one buys a home, they don’t pay itemized fees for the permits, the road extensions / expansions, the new traffic signals, the expansion of the power grid. Some of that is spread evenly among the populace, and when it’s not, it is charged to developers, and passed on to homebuyers, so they know exactly what they’re getting into.
I work for an electrical utility. Seattle City Light power is mostly transported through PSE utlity lines, and is mostly generated by the Bonneville Power Administration. Seattle City Light doesn’t allow PSE and BPA to bill their customers separately for this privilege, it’s all wrapped up in the cost of power to their customers.
The fact that utilities are interconnected is not a new phenomenon; asking a few new customers to pay thousands for capital projects is. Utilities need capital projects to keep up with demand all the time. It’s called expanding your customer base, and every other utility I’ve ever dealt with spreads out the cost and are happy with the long term gains.
This law may have been in effect for quite a while, but I’ve never heard it discussed before. I also find it hard to believe that it is just or ethical to charge new developments special fees. We don’t typically charge special fees to older neighborhoods because their roads or infrastructure are old and need to be repaired, do we?
Getting a bill like this out of nowhere seriously has me on edge. What else will come down the pike that my family’s not ready for? Special fees for police and fire fighters? A library tithe? School capacity fee?
Have any other readers had an experience like this with an unexpected bill for thousands of dollars to a municipality that you don’t even live in or receive direct service from?
A representative from King County responded in the comments. Here’s a portion of their remarks:
As our region grows, our need for new sewage treatment capacity increases as well. Since 1990, King County has levied a capacity charge on new connections to the sewer system that new customers pay in addition to their monthly sewer bill. The capacity charge covers the cost of new projects and system expansions to serve population growth. The Wastewater Treatment Division directly bills newly connecting customers for the capacity charge. Only new connections within King County’s service area will be assessed a capacity charge — our 420-sqaure-mile service area extends from as far north as Mill Creek down to a portion of Pierce County. The sewer service area was based on watersheds, not political boundaries.
Elected officials, sewer utility representatives and jurisdiction officials were all involved in King County’s decision to implement a capacity charge to ensure that “growth pays for growth”. At the root of the capacity charge is the issue of fairness. Property owners who paid for the cost of past system expansions are not expected to pay for new capacity generated by new construction.