Cranky computer billing system complicates the fuss

Should the City Council raise water rates for all Portlanders Ñ and then use the money to reduce the bills for some?

At first glance, the question seems illogical. The increase would apply even to those residents who get the reduction, offsetting some of the benefit.

But the council will wrestle with the issue during a public hearing at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, mainly because of the Portland Bureau of Water Works' problem-plagued computer billing system.

The problem started despite the best of intentions.

In 1977, the council added a storm water management fee to all water bills to fund a range of maintenance, construction and restoration programs. The goal was to keep storm water out of the sewer system, develop alternative ways to control it and repair erosion-damaged watersheds.

But many Portlanders argued that it wasn't fair to charge them the full fee. For example, a large number of east-side residents keep storm water out of the sewers by disconnecting their downspouts and letting the water flow over their yards.

'We're paying for something we're not getting, and that is robbery,' said Mildred Gale, who lives near Southeast 130th Avenue and Division Street.

In 2000, the council agreed and approved a discount in the fee for residents who manage storm water on their own property. The discount also applied to businesses that did the same thing.

The trouble was, the billing system that the water bureau started using in February 2001 could not handle the discount. As a result, the discount program never went into effect, even though Portlanders such as Gale did their part.

Now the council has approved replacing the billing system in 2006. In theory, it will be able to administer the discount program. But the city did not save up enough money to pay retroactive rebates to Jan. 1, 2001, when the program was first supposed to start.

So now the council has to decide what to do. If it decides against making the payments retroactive, many Portlanders will accuse the council of breaking its promise.

But if the council wants to make the retroactive payments, it will have to come up with the money. The Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the sewers, estimates that up to 110,000 water users could qualify for the discount. It would cost $33 million to pay all of them retroactive payments from 2006 back to 2001.

According to the bureau, the existing storm water management fee would have to be raised 114 percent to fund such payments.

That could force some businesses to lay off employees, said Kent Craford, spokesman for the Portland Water Users Coalition, which represents such large water consumers as dairies and ice plants.

'The increase could cost some businesses thousands of dollars a year. Where are they supposed to come up with the money?' said Craford, who refers to the fee as a 'gutter tax.'

Gale agreed that raising the fee to fund the discounts does not make sense. She thinks the council needs to find the money somewhere else.

'We don't want anyone to have to pay for the discounts through their water bills,' she said. 'The council needs to find some way to pay for it that doesn't hurt anyone.'

But, because of the poor economy, the council may not have any other choice. Mayor Vera Katz will propose cutting city services in her next budget, scheduled to be unveiled in the next few weeks.

'What is the council supposed to do Ñ cut police and fire to pay for the discounts?' asked Daniel Vizzini, an environmental services analyst working on the issue.

Contact Jim Redden at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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