Council set to approve measure for water rate increases

by: SUBMITTED -  Water main breaks occur nearly monthly in West Linn, adding up to $26,000 in repairs so far this year.West Linn residents will get to vote in March whether or not to increase their water rates by 18 percent to address the city’s aging water infrastructure.

The majority of the city council, during a Monday work session, agreed a measure should be placed on the March ballot. The council will vote on the resolution during its meeting next Monday.

The one-time rate increase would raise funds to start replacing and repairing the city’s water pipeline system. Under the city charter, the city cannot raise rates by more than 5 percent annually without voter approval.

The city’s water system includes six reservoirs, five pump stations and 120 miles of transmission lines, of which 1.6 miles are rusting galvanized steel.

West Linn currently has more than 10 miles of pipe, about 10 percent, overdue for replacement due to size or condition. Water main breaks occur nearly monthly and have cost the city $26,000 in repairs so far this year alone.

The city contends that the current fee structure, with the 5 percent limit, does not cover the costs of routine maintenance and improvements.

According to Chief Finance Officer Richard Seals, the city currently spends $210,000 operating the water system. However, the city needs another $540,000 a year to start bringing the pipeline to current standards over the next 20 years.

Since the 1990s, the city’s water master plan has required $750,000 annually for line improvements and replacements. Those fixes and expenditures have not happened as the city’s water revenue has continually decreased with better water conservation and expenses have steadily increased, including annual hikes from the South Fork Water Board for acquiring the water.

According to city staff, operating costs outstrip revenues from water sales by nearly $500,000 a year. To offset those costs, the city has deferred line maintenance.

The recommended water rate increase of 18 percent averages about $3 a month per household. This increase would generate the extra $500,000 annually the city needs to start making upgrades and repairs. The average utility bill in West Linn is currently $70 a month; of that, $19 is the average water bill.

“Here is how I am looking at this, the city of West Linn’s water system has 120 miles of pipe. Assuming the pipes will last 100 years (industry standards being 75 to 100 years) we would need to replace 1.2 miles of pipe per year at an annual cost of $792,000. Looking back over the last 20 years, ongoing operations of the water fund (excluding bond issues) has spent an average of $200,000 per year in capital outlay. With this level of replacement, we would assume our water pipes will last 396 years,” West Linn Water Supervisor Jim Whynot said.

Residents voted down a 2010 measure asking for a water rate increase. Looking back at that defeat, city staff thinks the question was too confusing. The city wants to try again in 2013.

“There’s been a lot of hands and minds in putting together this simple 10-word caption and 24-word question,” City Manager Chris Jordan said. “I think we have it to what makes the most sense.”

Jordan said both the utility advisory board and the water system improvement task force, along with a half dozen city staff members, have worked on and reviewed the proposed ballot measure. The question is now being reviewed by the city attorney’s office.

Councilor Teri Cummings, who opposed the proposed measure at a November meeting, said the city currently has the money to fix the galvanized steel pipes, which are the most problematic ones.

“A lot has been said about the rusty pipes that is a great concern as of late; they’ve been breaking and causing problems and putting people and their water supply at risk,” she said. “At the sake of honesty, I think we don’t need to pretend we have a crisis when there isn’t one though.”by: SUBMITTED - This is a hole found in a failed asbestos concrete water pipe along Walling Way.

Cummings said the rusting pipes could be taken care of right away with the water budget’s surplus of $1.3 million, with the project costing $630,000. She also reminded councilors the reserve for the water budget is $315,000. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, water revenues were unexpectedly high this year, giving the water budget some cushion.

However, according to Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt, at the cost of $125 per foot, it would take a little more than $1 million to replace the galvanized steel.

“We could take care of these concerning rusty pipes right here and now,” Cummings said. “I don’t think we need to raise the people’s rate at all. I can’t support this at all.”

Jordan said the public works director is currently working on places to get projects going next year using some of the extra funds.

“In the real world, you don’t pick and choose projects based on type of pipe,” Wyatt said, adding that staff must consider four factors when choosing projects: meeting minimal pressure requirements, water quality, leaks and fire protection. “If we have a water line that has all of these issues, then it’s more of a priority than anything else and we can’t base a repair plan strictly on pipe composition.”

Other councilors disagreed with Cummings.

Councilor Mike Jones said, “The point is to assure our children that they don’t have a crisis and if we don’t put more money into maintenance over time for our pipes, then in fact the system is going to fail.”

“The issue for me is the long term,” Councilor Jody Carson said, calling the ballot measure a conservative approach. “We have a looming number of pipes that will have to be replaced in the coming years.”

“We want to be conservative financially,” Council President Jenni Tan said. “It’s a simple approach. For that price of a Starbucks coffee we are investing for our future and for our children.”

Mayor John Kovash was not in attendance at the work session.

To prepare voters for the measure, the city has been pushing the water issue via its newsletter, Facebook and website. Staff has gone as far as creating animal sculptures out of sections of decaying pipe and placing them around town. To this, Cummings also took exception. She questioned why the city was sending out postcards, placing items on the website and including information in utility bills before the council has decided to do anything.

Assistant City Attorney Megan Thornton said as long as there is no current ballot measure, then the city can send out information. However, the rules change once the city council approves the resolution.

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