Two groups are charging that the city's controversial decision to bury its open reservoirs will cost far more than previous estimates.

The City Council so far has approved about $77 million to replace the open reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks. The costs will be financed by bonds that will be repaid by an increase in water rates.

But two groups Friends of the Reservoirs and the Portland Water Users Coalition say the final costs will be between $170 million and $202 million.

The groups base their estimates on city documents that list costs for different portions of the project. One source is the most recent Capital Improvement Program published by the Portland Water Bureau. Another is a financial document prepared by Walker Macy, a longtime bureau consulting firm.

'The city has not published a single budget that lists all the costs. They've just let the figures out piecemeal and never put them all together,' said Jeff Boly, an attorney working for Friends of the Reservoirs, which is made up of citizens living near both parks.

Coalition member Charlie Porcelli wants the council to reconsider the project. His group comprises large water users such as food processors, laundries and hotels.

'Before we raise rates again, spend $200 million that ratepayers don't have and wipe out jobs in an already weak economy, city hall needs to reopen public debate on this project and analyze more cost-effective alternatives,' said Porcelli, chief financial officer of Koldkist Beverage Ice.

But city Commissioner Dan Saltzman said the council is committed to the project.

'The council is solidly behind this,' said Saltzman, who is in charge of the water bureau, which is overseeing the project.

The coalition issued a statement Tuesday opposing the project.

The next morning, Saltzman told the Portland Tribune the council has approved only $77 million for the project. Although he agreed that the final costs may be higher, Saltzman said it was too early to know the final figure.

'We will learn things in the early stages of the project that will allow us to save money later on,' he said.

Later in the day, however, Saltzman sent a memo to the rest of the council saying the total costs are currently estimated at $121 million. The memo, which was a response to the coalition's news release, said it will cost $107 million to build the new underground storage tanks in both parks and $14 million to cover them.

'Any proposed increase in this figure would require council approval,' he wrote.

Both groups claim that additional costs should be included in the project total, however, including $58 million to build a new 50-million-gallon underground reservoir at Powell Butte.

Coalition spokesman Ken Craford said the proposed Powell Butte reservoir should be considered part of the open reservoir project. He said the additional storage is necessary because the replacement Mount Tabor reservoirs will be 75 million gallons smaller than the ones they replace.

'The city has to build it to make up part of what they're losing at Mount Tabor,' Craford said.

Saltzman denied that, saying the Powell Butte reservoir was first proposed 15 years ago to increase the city's water storage capacity.

'It has to be built anyway,' he said.

Although the council recently approved a new master plan for Powell Butte, it has not yet funded the new reservoir.

Controversial project

Water bureau officials have wanted to replace the city's aging open reservoirs for many years. The council approved the project last year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., raised the possibility of someone poisoning the city's water supply.

The council did not hold a separate public hearing on the project, however. Instead, the project was approved as part of the bureau's overall budget. At that time the council approved $64.5 million to replace the three open reservoirs in Mount Tabor with underground storage tanks.

When park users learned about the project a few months later, they began complaining that it would destroy the scenic beauty and historic nature of the facilities. Friends of the Reservoirs was formed to reverse the decision.

Although the council eventually held a public forum on the issue Feb. 19, it did not take a new vote on it. Instead, the council formed a citizen advisory group to design new landscaping and other features to go on top of the buried reservoirs.

Official project costs have crept up since then. Although the council originally approved $2 million to cover the Mount Tabor reservoirs, it set aside $14 million after appointing the advisory committee. A water bureau consultant has since estimated the cost at up to $27 million, however. Both groups have used that figure in their estimates.

Saltzman insists it is not fair to use the $27 million projection, however.

'The council has only approved $14 million. It may not go higher,' he said.

The bureau has yet to say how much it will cost to cover the Washington Park reservoirs. Craford estimates that part of the project will cost at least $10 million, if not more.

Saltzman said it is too early to make any estimate.

'We're going to learn a lot on the Mount Tabor project that can be applied to Washington Park to keep costs down,' he said.

Boly thinks the city is deliberately misleading the public, however.

'They're experts at only releasing part of the information we need to know what's going on,' he said.

Opposition welcomed

Although the Portland Water Users Coalition is not concerned about maintaining the scenic beauty or historic nature of the parks, Friends of the Reservoirs welcomes its support anyway.

'It makes perfect sense that they would oppose the project because of the costs. We are all concerned about what this will do to water rates,' said Friends member Floy Jones.

Craford hopes that the business opposition will convince the council to take another look at the project:

'In the past, the opposition has been seen as a 'not-in-my-back-yard' kind of thing. It's been dismissed as just upsetting neighbors. But the coalition is made up of some of the biggest businesses in the region.'

The coalition was formed last year to oppose the bureau's proposed $200 million Bull Run membrane filtration plant as too expensive. Saltzman put that project on hold after being assigned to the bureau earlier this year.

'When we started adding up the figures, we realized this project was as much,' Craford said.

The coalition includes Koldkist Beverage Ice, Sunshine Dairy Foods, WestFarm Foods (Darigold), Mt. St. Joseph, New Systems Laundry, SAPA Inc., Cascade General shipyard, Dean Specialty Foods (Steinfelds), ALSCO American Linen Division, ALSCO American Industrial Division, Portland Hospital Service Corp., Unifirst Laundry, the Benson Hotel, Hayden Island Mobile Home Park and the Hilton Hotels.

Coalition supporters include: the Oregon Restaurant Beverage Association, Northwest Food Processors Association, Tri-County Lodging Association, Metro Multi Family Housing Association, Oregon Metals Industry Council and the Oregon Grocery Industry Council.

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