Plus, winter weather preparedness report
In the fourth of several budget-focused study sessions, the City Council reviewed Bellevue Utilities’ proposed 2021-2022 budget and rates. Due to cost increases from wholesale service providers for water supply and wastewater treatment, and necessary investments to care for aging infrastructure, the proposed budget recommends a combined rate increase of 3.8% in 2021 and 3.9% in 2022. The rate bump translates into a monthly increase of $6.91 in 2021 and $7.48 in 2022 for a typical residential customer.
As proposed, Utilities has a two-year Operating Budget of $321.8 million and seven-year capital investment program of $235.6 million.
Given the current economic climate and COVID-19 impacts, the department has made significant efforts to minimize rate hikes on customers. As a result of cost containment measures, zero rate increases are proposed for local operations, the primary cost area controlled by Utilities, and the department has reduced planned capital investments. Utilities is funded primarily by rates. As a result, absorbing cost increases from external providers, the major rate driver, impacts the department’s ability to sustain service delivery to customers.
To support customers facing financial hardship, Utilities offers several bill assistance programs including flexible payment plans, the new Emergency Assistance Program, and rate and tax relief programs. Customers are encouraged to contact the department about these and other support services.
After discussing the proposal and asking questions, councilmembers unanimously voted to direct staff to prepare the utility rate ordinances as part of the 2021-2022 budget adoption process. The final budget could be voted on as early as Dec. 7.
Customers can find more information on what utility rate dollars support on the Utilities’ website at BellevueWA.gov/Utility-Rates.
Economic development briefing
The council received a quarterly economic development update, the first since the new Economic Development Plan update was approved in early November. The city is now transitioning from the core concepts of the prior plan to the updated elements of the new plan, including specific strategies to address economic recovery due to COVID-19.
The report included a current status update of the recovering economy. Bellevue’s unemployment trends have followed the same trajectory as other regional cities, with a large spike in April and a gradual but continued reduction since. Bellevue has remained the city with the lowest unemployment rate among its Puget Sound region peers. In September, Bellevue’s unemployment was at 5.5% after a high of 11.5% in April.
Overnight hotel visitor rates are slowly returning, from an occupancy rate below 10% in the spring to just above 28% now. Tourism and corporate travel, an important part of Bellevue’s downtown economy, have been slow to return. In addition, holiday activities in the downtown area may look different this year with Garden d’Lights canceled and re-scoped Magic Season festivities, but the city is looking at creative ways to adapt and evolve the activities to maintain safety through the holiday season. The Bellwether arts fair will be reimagined and held Dec. 5-Jan. 16 with a focus on digital artwork, performances and film.
Several recent investments have been made to support businesses, human services and mobility. Amazon has pledged $1 million over four years to support Bellevue’s Human Services Fund. Facebook announced it was offering a $1 million contribution to help continue construction of the Eastrail multipurpose trail. And the city recently distributed $185,000 in small business relief grants through CARES Act funding to 37 local businesses. Among recipients of the grants, 67% of the businesses were women-owned, 55% were minority-owned, and 43% immigrant- or refugee-owned. The city continues to support small business, entrepreneurship and training with accelerator programs and regional workforce development programs, especially in response to COVID-19.
The activities of focus moving forward with the new plan include specific ways to address some of the challenges that are expected to linger in the COVID-19 recovery. The updated plan strategies include capacity building and partnerships, small business and entrepreneurship, workforce resources, retail, creative economy, and tourism. Full plan details are available on a the Economic Development Plan web page.
Winter weather preparedness report
Also on the council agenda was a briefing on what Bellevue is doing to prepare for winter weather, including the increased potential for heavy rain, strong winds and snowstorms.
Multiple city departments pitch in to respond to weather events and have attended virtual online training sessions to prepare. This year, several procedural changes have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to keep staff and the public safe during a weather response. These include new vehicle cleaning guidelines and eliminating in-person debrief meetings at shift changes.
Also new this year is the deployment of vehicle locating equipment on all winter response vehicles. This equipment will allow staff to better monitor completion of work on snow routes and improve response times in emergencies.
Bellevue is well-equipped to respond to snow at higher elevations and usually able to clear streets in residential neighborhoods. But if snow or ice is widespread in the community, only the highest priority routes will be plowed continuously until weather conditions allow crews to reach neighborhood streets.
The seasonal forecast calls for a La Niña weather pattern, with above average precipitation levels through December, followed by slightly below average temperatures through the rest of the winter.