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Poll: Voters oppose water-rate rollback

Two hundred Oregon City voters polled by phone last month generally don’t know where their water comes from, are satisfied with their water service and would like to avoid the loss of service that could come with a water-rate rollback in 2014.

In results released to City Commission at a work session last week, an online survey of about 150 volunteers and also expressed general support for avoiding a water-rate rollback by about a two-thirds margin. A nine-member Water Rate Advisory Group has been helping guide the City Commission to avoid a 27 percent loss of revenue.

Public Works Director John Lewis recommended putting the power of setting water rates back into the hands of city commissioners who set those rates in most cities.

“We recognize that’s a political battle, we still think for a water utility, that’s the most responsible recommendation we could make,” Lewis said.

Half of the people that DHM Research polled by telephone Oct. 18 and 19 didn’t know that Oregon City provides then water through the South Fork Water Board, and many thought they received water through the Clackamas River Water District, “which is not such a good thing right now,” city-contracted consultant Clark Worth quipped.

In May 1996, Oregon City voters approved a charter amendment that returned water rates to 1994 levels. Provisions that allowed a 3 percent annual increase, and even in a water emergency, higher increases required voter approval for any higher increase.

The city has interpreted legal proceedings in the Clackamas County Courthouse to mean that when the city’s water bonds are paid off in October 2014, the charter amendment provisions will prevail and in November 2014, the water rates will roll back to those in effect as of Oct. 31, 1994, with the allowance of a 3 percent annual increase. The current revenue from water rates, nearing $6 million, suddenly would drop below $4 million.

The chief petitioner for the ballot measure in Oregon City says it wasn’t the intent of his initiative to force the city to roll back its water rates in 2014. (See previous story, “OC rate rollback hits city projects,” Aug. 14.)

But city officials see the result of a 27 percent loss of revenue as potentially disastrous. Water services would not even be able to meet its operating costs, and capital funds for renovations and new construction would disappear, city commissioners heard from the Public Works Department.

On the other hand, if voters were to allow 8 percent increases in annual water rates, the health of the city’s water system would be maintained, Water Department officials say. In that scenario, the average household water bill would increase by about $3 a month during the next five years.

While Commissioner Kathy Roth said a proposed measure shouldn’t contain numbers the city has to stick to, Mayor Doug Neeley said that voters would be more likely to support a 5 percent rate-increase cap. Neeley received agreement on this point from Commissioner Betty Mumm, who was among commissioners who questioned how well the results would reflect all city voters.

About 42 percent of voters polled said their lease favorite option was the 8 percent rate-increase cap, which seemed to contradict other results. Mumm wasn’t sure that the questions offered a good predictor of voter behavior.

“We’re a town of over 30,000 people who live here, and...I don’t know that that’s a broad enough, good enough sample,” Mumm said.

John Horvick of DHM Research said that the survey results represented an “honest attempt” to gauge community support. Worth added the sample size was large enough to be a good gauge of how the general community felt at the time the questions were asked.

Formal public hearings on a charter amendment will be scheduled for February so that an election could take place in May.



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