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City water rate fight turns green

Ratepayer frustration fuels ballot initiative to end City Council control; foes say environment needs protection


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Spending critic Kent Craford stands outside the Water Bureau's maintenance facility project, which he thinks is too expensive.Commissioner Nick Fish welcomes the proposed ballot measure to take away control of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services from the City Council.

Fish, who is in charge of both bureaus, says such a campaign would give him a chance to explain that the management of the water bureau has changed since he took it over.

And Fish says it also would allow Portlanders to learn about the watershed protection work being done by the environmental services bureau, which operates the city’s sewer system and storm water management programs.

“I’m looking forward to making the case for both bureaus,” Fish says.

The proposed ballot measure would amend the City Charter to place both bureaus under the control of an elected board. The chief petitioners are lobbyist Kent Craford and water bureau watchdog Floy Jones. They also are involved in the ongoing lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court charging the council has misspent at least $117 million in water and sewer ratepayer funds during the past 10 years.

“The City Council cannot be trusted with ratepayer money,” Craford says.

Petition backers have until January to collect 29,786 valid signatures of Portland voters to qualify it for the May 2014 primary election ballot. Financial supporters include such large water users as the Portland Bottling Co. and the Siltronic manufacturing plant.

Fish is confident a coalition of environmentalists, labor union and business leaders will form to oppose the measure if it qualifies for the ballot. He predicts environmentalists will oppose the measure because it threatens to reduce or eliminate the watershed protection work being done by the environmental services bureau. He says labor unions will oppose it because the new board could lay off the unionized employees of the two bureaus. And he says business leaders will oppose it because of the uncertainty it will create.

“There will be a lot of opposition to the measure,” Fish says.

Backers point to the successful initiative drive that overturned the council’s plan to fluoridate the city’s water system as proof the voters don’t trust City Hall, however. The plan was unanimously supported by the last council and supported by a well-financed campaign that received contributions from many business leaders. Despite that, it was rejected by around two-thirds of the vote.

Petitions cannot be circulated until two legal challenges to the ballot title written by the city attorney’s office are resolved, however. One was filed by the measure’s backers, Portlanders for Water Reform, who say it has minor factual errors. The other was filed by Vanessa Keitges, the chief executive officer of Columbia Green, a local eco-roof company. The challenges could take a few weeks to resolve.

The Portland City Club recently announced it would study the proposed measure and why Portland’s combined water-sewer-stormwater rates are so high and issue its findings in March, two months before the May election.

Fish, who is up for re-election next year, also will be on the ballot.

Controversies get spotlight

Fish accuses the measure’s supporters of playing a game of bait-and-switch. He says they repeatedly bring up the high-profile controversies in the water bureau — like the millions spent on public toilets, the Water House and the new Rose Festival headquarters — when it was run by former Commissioner Randy Leonard. But Fish says they do not talk very often about the more popular environmental services programs, such as those to enhance the health of the watersheds that feed into local creeks, streams and rivers.

According to a city analysis, the lawsuit targets $117 million in ratepayer spending. Water bureau programs only account for about one-third of the disputed spending in the current lawsuit. Two-thirds of the spending are for environmental programs.

“If you just came down from Mars, you’d think this was a fight about water, but it’s a fight about the environment,” Fish says.

Many of the environmental programs are funded with storm water management rates applied to the impervious surface areas of homes and business. They are projected to raise $92 million this fiscal year, roughly one-third of the environmental services bureau’s $277 million total budget.

Craford says it’s the local media, not him, who have focused on the water project. He agrees the environmental services bureau is responsible for most of the spending being questioned in the lawsuit.

“We’ve continuously complained about sewer spending, too,” Craford says.

Case for watershed

According to Fish, preserving and enhancing watersheds is a cost-effective way of reducing polluted water that would otherwise need to be piped to expensive treatment plants.

“The bureau has not done a good job making the business case for such programs so far, but that’s what we’re going to start to do,” Fish says.

And Fish says Portlanders need to know that he and Mayor Charlie Hales are taking the criticisms of the water bureau seriously. Fish said the first step was when the council reduced the rate increase requested by the bureau from 14.8 to 3.6 percent in the budget that took effect July 1.

“That’s a serious reduction from the double-digit increases that have been happening,” Fish says.

Then last week, Fish announced that the bureau would sell the Water House. It was pushed by Leonard as a demonstration project on how a well-designed house can save water and energy. He told the council it would cost around $200,000 in bureau funds to build the house in far East Portland, with local businesses donating much of the rest of the cost. Instead, an audit found it cost nearly $1 million, including city administrative salaries.

The bureau is listing the house for $475,000, meaning the city could lose up to $500,000 on the deal. Fish said it’s important to deal with the issue and move on, however.

“The Water Bureau is under new management,” he says. “We are committed to stabilizing rates and to high levels of accountability and transparency.”

Fish promises there will be other changes in coming weeks that help demonstrate the new direction he is taking, too.

Craford does not believe Fish will substantially change the direction of either bureau, however, saying he voted for all of the rate increase that funded the questionable spending in the past. Craford says that includes a new million-dollar water bureau maintenance facility near North Interstate Avenue and Tillamook Street that he describes as a “Taj Mahal.”

Bureau officials defend the project as replacing a multipurpose building built in 1925 that would collapse during an earthquake. It serves as the bureau’s main warehouse and would hinder emergency repairs throughout the city if it fell down. The building will be replaced by an earthquake-proof warehouse and separate office building. The project is expected to cost around $50 million, including engineering and architectural fees. There was no opposition when the council approved it in May 2011.

Environmentalists oppose

Eleven local environmental leaders already have come out against the potential measure. In a July 24 statement, they said, “We want accountability and transparency, and we also want to see the city build upon, not abandon, its most important environmental programs.”

Those signing the statement include Friends of Trees Executive Director Scott Fogarty, Audubon Society of Portland Conservation Director Bob Sallinger, Depave board member Ted Labbe, Urban Greenspaces Institute Executive Director Mike Houck, Trust for Public Lands Senior Project Manager Don Goldberg and Oregon Environmental Council Legislative Director Angela Crowley-Koch.

Most of the 11 environmental leaders who signed the statement against the proposed ballot measure belong to organizations that have received money from the Bureau of Environmental Services or partnered with the city on projects.

According to city records of BES grants and contracts during the past five years:

Friends of Trees is being paid more than $7.9 million to plant thousands of trees to enhance watershed health in Portland.

The Audubon Society is receiving more than $43,290 to conduct a bird count on Mount Tabor as part of a restoration project.

Depave received $10,000 to remove asphalt in a church parking lot.

The Urban Greenspaces Institute received more than $4,417 for a mural project.

Friends of Gateway Green received $4,200 for events related to the east Portland project.

Jeri Williams, who identifies herself as an equity activist, is a city employee.

The Trust for Public Lands partnered with the bureau to buy the Riverview Cemetery.

The Oregon Environmental Council is partnering with Mayor Charlie Hales on a public poll about whether Portlanders will support a carbon tax.

“I expects those groups who are supported by the city will want to maintain the status quo,” says co-chief petitioner Kent Craford.

Commissioner Nick Fish does not believe the payments and partnerships represent a conflict of interest, however.

“It’s no more a conflict of interest than large water users supporting the measure who want to see their rates cut,” Fish says.

Employees at both bureaus are represented by Local 189 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union official Rob Wheaton says the local has not yet taken a stand on the measure, but many of its members have concerns about it. They include whether AFSCME 189 would continue representing them if it passes.

“We’ll take a close look at it, but right now there are some real concerns,” Wheaton says.

Likewise, the Portland Business Alliance has not yet taken a stand on the measure. Communications and Programming Vice President Megan Doern says the influential business organization has asked its members not to support or oppose it until after the formal endorsement process is complete.

9/29/2013 correction

The Audubon Society of Portland is scheduled to receive up to $43,290 to conduct multiple bird surveys at 10 locations during a six-year period as part of the city's watershed monitoring program. Audubon donated more than 50 percent of the hours required for this project. A story in the Aug. 22 Tribune misstated terms of the contract.