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City pulls plug on 18 percent water rate measure

LO water treatment plant expansion may affect March vote


In a surprise vote, the West Linn City Council unanimously voted during its Jan. 14 meeting to take the proposed March 12 water measure off the ballot.

Council President Mike Jones moved for staff to take “whatever legal actions necessary” to remove the proposed one-time rate hike.

This is a sudden switch from recent council discussion. Last month, the council voted to ask residents for a one-time water rate hike of 18 percent, over and above the city’s annual capped 5 percent increase.

The council is attempting to remove the ballot measure to avoid confusion with the contentious permit hearings it is conducting this month regarding the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership proposed water treatment plant expansion and pipeline.

“The reason that council feels this is necessary to remove this from the ballot is there is a great deal of confusion over our water issues and this,” Jones said.

Although the council was aware it would hear the water treatment plant conditional use permit proposals in January, Mayor John Kovash said the council didn’t realize the issues could be misconstrued.

Kovash said councilors were hearing from residents expressing confusion, and after discussion among each other and city staff the council thought it would be best to take the measure off the ballot altogether.

Kovash also said the LOT permits, if approved, could have an impact on the city’s water system. This is because as part of its conditions of approval, the city council may tack on a one-time $5 million payment from LOT for use of the pipeline right-of-way. That money could be used toward city water infrastructure or the replacement of the Bolton Reservoir.

The city wanted the March ballot measure to 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 one-time rate hike would be in addition to the annual 5 percent increase.

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 more than $26,000 in repairs last year.

The city contends the current 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 yearly 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.

According to the city, 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 would generate the extra $500,000 annually the city needs to start making upgrades and repairs.

Removing the ballot measure may prove difficult for West Linn. According to Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt, the city will need to file a lawsuit, asking the court for an injunction to prevent the county from printing and circulating the ballots. The deadline to remove a measure filed with Clackamas County was Jan. 10.

“My hope is that the county would waive those (special election) fees given that it does not appear that there will be a special election and because they have not yet printed the ballots. I will try to confirm with them what their protocol is in this type of circumstance,” said Peter Watts from the city’s attorney’s office of Jordan Ramis.

The council is expected to re-examine the water rate increase measure during its goal setting in early February.