Judge says UW can't charge energy fee

A King County Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that the University of Washington does not have the legal authority to charge students a special energy fee to cover rising campus power bills.

Judge Robert Alsdorf concluded that the $3-per-credit fee the UW began charging last month amounts to another tuition increase, which only the Legislature can authorize.

The fee would have come to about $135 a year for the average full-time student at the Seattle campus. It would have been less for those at UW branch campuses.

"This is a huge victory for the students," said Jasmin Weaver, a senior philosophy major and former student president, who filed the suit challenging the fee in August.

UW administrators have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

Norm Arkans, associate vice president of university relations, called the decision "disappointing" and said that the UW will have to make more budget cuts to make up for the shortfall largely caused by last year's soaring energy costs.

The temporary energy fee would have raised about $4.5 million and helped the UW cut into its $13.6 million budget deficit for 2002.

Regents imposed the special fee this summer, the same time students faced a 6.7 percent tuition increase, a 10 percent housing increase and a proposed library fee.

Under state law, the Legislature has tuition- and fee-setting authority.

University governing boards, however, have the power to impose special fees, such as chemistry-laboratory fees, as long as the fees are not applied to all students.

UW administrators maintained the energy fee would apply only to students who take on-campus courses and not to students who take distance-learning or independent-study courses that don't use a classroom or a laboratory.

Alsdorf, in his ruling, wrote that energy costs are covered by operating fees that are part of tuition, and that the UW "does not, by the mere expediency of affixing a new label of 'special fee' to it, have the legal authority to exempt an energy fee or surcharge from the limits imposed by the State Legislature on the amount of tuition which may be charged to students registering at the state's colleges and universities."

Weaver and her attorney, Jim Johanson, said the ruling is a major victory because it will prevent the university from charging students more money under the "guise of special fees."

In September, Alsdorf denied Weaver's request for an injunction, saying she had not shown that she couldn't afford the fee or that it would harm her. That cleared the way for the UW to impose the fee shortly after the Oct. 1 start of the fall quarter.

Tan Vinh can be reached at 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com.