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Skyrocketing water bills lead to concerns

"Why is my utility bill so high?”

That is the No. 1 question citizens ask as I campaign door-to-door throughout Lake Oswego. The answer is that the city is collecting in advance for the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership (LOTWP) for which not a shovel of dirt has yet been moved.

Planned rate increases will continue to mount for several more years and then they will remain at the same high level until 2038 when project debt is retired. No one asked citizens if they wanted to commit to LOTWP on these terms. Fees are like taxes without our vote. We never had a chance to vote on this largest capital project in the city’s history, $250 million.

Portland consultants may be pleased with LOTWP because we are paying them mightily. In just two years, the figure appears to be a staggering $20 million (consultant costs are not readily available from the city). In addition, we carry almost a million dollars annually in staff personnel costs on the project, not to mention escalating legal fees for contentious issues with our West Linn neighbors.

Tens of millions are already dedicated toward this project, although its legality is still challenged. Land use approvals have not been obtained from West Linn. Approval for the amount of water to be pumped from the Clackamas River remains in the state Appeals Court. Sequencing of steps is important in carrying out a plan, but in this case, commitment of LO funds preceded assurance that the project could be done.

Planning documents from 2007 show significant cost increases over time with no idea of when they may stop. Furthermore, there are out-of-date assumptions that led to overcapacity in volume and scope. Assumptions about population growth were high. Assumptions about additional land to be served with LO water were high. Assumptions about conservation were underestimated. Thus, LOTWP proceeded too quickly for proper implementation over a longer time horizon. When assumptions underlying a plan lead to out-of-date conclusions, the plan itself should be questioned and reworked.

In Lake Oswego, the council has not re-evaluated LOTWP capacity or scope. Our average water usage is about 6 million gallons per day. Current capacity is 16 millions gallons per day of clean water, yet we are planning for 24 (plus 14 for Tigard — a total of 38 million gallons per day).

The extent of growth in these fees has made the issue important to everyone in LO. Controlling growth in fees and taxes is especially important to our citizens on fixed incomes as well as to businesses that want to remain in Lake Oswego. Some residents complained that they allowed their grass to die this summer in order to save water, but their bills were still many times higher than ever because a large percentage of each bill is “fixed,” regardless of use level and conservation efforts.

What should be done beyond certain needed repairs? Some say “charge forward” because otherwise LO would face a penalty. Instead, let’s do an honest cost-benefit analysis and do what is right for LO. No single factor is a sole reason for stopping LOTWP or canceling the contract. However, in the aggregate of so many factors I’ve described, it is clear that city council must ask pointed questions and re-evaluate how wisely it is spending our tax dollars.

Karen Bowerman is a candidate for Lake Oswego City Council.