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Hearing on rate hike draws just eight people

The night before Thanksgiving, the St. Helens City Council held a public hearing to allow residents to comment on a proposed utility rate increase.

Eight people attended.

“I think a lot of people aren’t here because it’s the day before Thanksgiving,” said Matt Freeman, a member of the St. Helens School District Board, voicing a complaint echoed by others who spoke to the council after him. “How do you do a public forum on the day before Thanksgiving?”

In response, Mayor Randy Peterson said the council planned to continue the hearing at the next council meeting on Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. to allow more people to comment on the rate changes.

The proposed rate increase would add roughly $8.95 to the average monthly residential utilities bill, said Jon Ellis, finance director for the city of St. Helens.

Some of the main drivers behind the increase are debt agreements, operational and maintenance costs and the departure of Boise Inc., the city’s main industrial user after Armstrong World Industries. Personal costs, including PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) and other health benefits are also expected to go up, putting a greater burden on the city to bring in revenue, Ellis said.

The city expects the increase to be temporary, a small a bump in a multi-year plan that includes lower utility costs down the road.

Compared to other Oregon cities, St. Helens’ rates (even with the increase) remain only slightly higher than average, said Ellis and city administrator John Walsh.

St. Helens resident Stuart Foreman worried about the effect the increase could have on the elderly and other people living off fixed incomes.

Those residents will be hard-pressed to meet the new costs, he said.

“Please go back and sharpen your pencils a little bit, I don’t know,” he urged the councilors.

At a time when the city is trying to encourage economic growth, “all the business are going to get hit (with this increase),” Freeman said.

But, “I understand you’re in a place you don’t want to be,” he told the councilors.

Another resident, Howard Blumenthal, said the city has been very generous to Boise Inc. over the years.

“They’re abandoning this town,” he said. “The time for cutting them any slack and raising rates on the citizens is over.”

David van Swearingen said he was only able to attend the hearing because it was held the night before Thanksgiving and he had the day off.

He told the council he was frustrated because “the rates keep going up and my wages keep going down, going backwards.”

“I know you guys are going to need the revenue somehow,” he added, “but I have a hard time paying for it.”