Council mulls idea of changing income limit for utility discounts, hears plan for 66th Avenue West improvements

Councilmembers listen to City Manager Scott Hugill, lower right, Thursday night.

Utility discounts for specific populations in need, a proposed adjustment to pet licensing rules, the police department’s quarterly report and updates on upcoming construction projects were among the items discussed by the Mountlake Terrace City Council during its Oct. 29 work/study session.

Councilmembers addressed the idea of updating income thresholds the city uses to determine eligibility for discounts on its water, sewer and stormwater bills. Mountlake Terrace has provided utility rate reductions for senior citizens with low incomes and people who are disabled since 2007. The council received an email from a resident this summer requesting an update to the income thresholds used to determine eligibility for the discounts.

Currently, property owners living on the premises who are either over age 62  or determined to be disabled can qualify for a 30% discount if they are in a household with an combined income equal to or less than 140% of the established federal poverty level. The city’s current formula results in the following maximum household income levels to qualify for the utility discount:

The cities of Edmonds and Lynnwood and the Alderwood Water & Wastewater District utility all offer similar discounts using a variety of different formulas and criteria to determine residents’ eligibility. Their income thresholds are higher than what is required by Mountlake Terrace, and the discounts are available in Edmonds and Lynnwood to all households regardless of age or disability.

Raising the income threshold would potentially allow for more people to qualify for the discounts, even if the age and disability requirements are maintained. City Manager Scott Hugill said if the council would like to explore dropping those conditions so that household income is the only determining factor, city staff would need to compile more information. He cited a lack of city-wide income data and noted that which is available is mostly from the federal census 10 years ago.

“To expand it to all household might be a bit of a big chew,” Hugill said, “especially since we’re in the census now and we should get preliminary data in 2021.” Meanwhile, he felt the city already has most of the information needed about its senior citizen population and could begin to run those numbers “to see what kind of discounts you’d be providing to residents, impacts on the utility funds and that sort of thing.”

The city council expressed its support for possibly expanding the program and raising its income thresholds, and also cited the need for additional conversations and gathering more data on which to base any future decisions.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl said he would like to see more numbers before determining next steps. “I think we do need to look at expanding our eligibility program or discounts in some form, the question is what,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Doug McCardle agreed more information was necessary. If the city knew how many households currently receive the discount, it could help determine how raising income thresholds and/or dropping current age and disability requirements might affect those numbers, he added.

Councilmember Erin Murray said she also was interested in exploring changes to the eligibility requirements, “as well as looking at increasing the income limitations to more accurately reflect the very real cost of living in this area.” She noted that federal numbers such as the poverty level don’t necessarily provide an accurate picture of local living expenses, and suggested the possibility of also using alternative measures such as the area mean income.

Hugill thanked councilmembers for their input. “It’s clear you all want to help,” he said.

On the issue of pet licenses, the council approved an increase in fees last month. Pet owners are currently required to license animals that are over three months old and can receive a 50% reduction in the annual amount if dogs or cats are either spayed or neutered.

During previous discussions about the licensing fees update, Councilmember Rick Ryan had inquired about raising the age at which a pet must be licensed to six months, to allow a proper amount of time for spaying or neutering puppies and kittens. Further research determined that animal medical associations recommend those procedures be performed beyond three months of age. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) advises spaying or neutering pets between the ages of four to six months, and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) suggests the decision be made based on the animal’s breed.

City staff has recommended changing the code to reflect medically advised best practices and not requiring pet licenses until cats and dogs are older than six months. The extra time would allow people to save money, rather than having to pay full cost before their pets can be spayed or neutered.

There was council support for the idea, and a proposal to amend the pet licensing code will be considered in the near future. “We just have to do things that make sense,” Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright said.

Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw and Commander Pat Lowe presented the department’s third quarter report. They highlighted the amount of ongoing training staff has been conducting. Lowe said the agency will soon begin instructing officers on the use of recently received VKS Pepperball Launchers.

“It’s a less-lethal option tool that can be used at pretty good distances, between 50 and sometimes up to 100 yards,” Lowe said. Those increased distances, he added, can be safer for law enforcement personnel than other devices such as tasers or a Bola Wrap that require officers to be in closer proximity to use.

Lowe told the council that the number of traffic infractions and citations “may seem a little bit low, based on what you may have seen in the past.” That’s because police are focusing “more on education and more with positive police interactions with the community and people driving through our city,” Lowe said.

The section of 66th Avenue West being considered for safety improvements.

The council also received an update on an upcoming pavement reconstruction project along 66th Avenue West from 220th Street Southwest to the northern city limits at the Interurban Trail. It will include modifying vehicle channels to accommodate bikes and safety improvements at the Interurban Trail crossing, along with curb and sidewalk repairs. The project is currently in the design process, which is anticipated to be completed and advertised for construction by summer 2021.

Two potential bike path configuration alternatives and two options for the Interurban Trail crossing were previously identified. Public input was solicited during an online open house, a news release, social media posts, and postcard mailings.

City Engineer Jesse Birchman said that based on both public input and design analysis, city staff recommends that the project proceed with bike lanes along both sides of 66th Avenue West. This option is anticipated to provide slight improvements to truck travel paths with no notable impacts to general traffic operations. According to public preferences expressed, the city is also suggesting the inclusion of a center median island that doesn’t have “bulb-outs” at the Interurban Trail crossing.

In other business, the council discussed setting a date for a public hearing about the merits of a petition submitted by Sound Transit to vacate a portion of the 222nd Street right-of-way as part of the construction path on the Lynnwood Link project. City staff has recommended that the council adopt a resolution at its Nov. 2 meeting to set a public hearing date of Dec. 7, 2020.

The first of three public hearings about the proposed 2021-22 biennial budget will also be held at the council’s Nov. 2 meeting. The agenda for Monday night is available online.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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