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Portland water, sewer ratepayers to get independent advocate

Portland water and sewer ratepayers will get a new advocate on their side — the Citizens Utility Board — which already works to keep their gas, electric and phone bills in check.

The Portland City Council unanimously agreed Wednesday to ask the Citizens Utility Board, known as CUB, to step into new territory by becoming an independent watchdog for city water and sewer operations. CUB will delve into complicated capital improvement projects and other matters, and advocate for the lowest possible rates for residents. The nonprofit, created by voters in a 1984 state ballot initiative, will try to pay for its work by making pitches to Portland residents to become CUB donors and members. The city agreed to allow CUB to send fundraising solicitations along with the water and sewer bills.

“The CUB is going to call it as they see it,” without a dime of money from the city, said Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services. He put forth the CUB resolution along with Commissioner Steve Novick.

The idea first surfaced publicly on Jan. 2, and passed in remarkably short order for a city that prizes public participation and vetting of new policies. Few doubt why the CUB idea passed so speedily, though. City commissioners are feeling pressure from a likely initiative measure on the May city ballot, which would ask voters to yank the water and sewer bureaus from City Council control and hand that authority to a new Portland Public Water District with its own elected board.

Sharon Maxwell, who filed last month to run against Fish in the May primary, panned the CUB proposal as a feeble response to the ballot initiative.

“This effort is a bit too late and falls short of what our city needs to reinstate the trust of its citizens,” Maxwell said.

The Portland City Club, which commissioned a committee to study city water and sewer operations that will release its findings in March, asked for a one- or two-week delay in approving the CUB proposal.

But Fish and other commissioners said the city should move quickly, to take advantage of CUB’s expertise in rate-setting proceedings for the water and sewer bureaus. They promised to be all ears when the City Club committee is ready to provide its feedback.

“I’d like all the help we can get from independent well-informed reviewers, whether it’s the City Club or CUB,” said Mayor Charlie Hales.

'Do our homework'

Kent Craford, co-petitioner for the measure to create the Portland Public Water District, has dismissed the idea of bringing CUB in as just another committee the City Council can ignore when it makes water and sewer spending and rate decisions.

But Bob Jenks, the well-respected executive director of CUB, took issue with those who suggest the move is just a token effort to fend off the ballot measure.

Jenks said he’s a Portland resident and has noted the steady climb of water and sewer rates, to the point where they amount to the third-highest bill he has to pay regularly. Many CUB members have asked his organization to expand its work to represent city water and sewer ratepayers, Jenks told the City Council Wednesday.

In March, Jenks brought the idea to Novick, who later discussed it with Fish.

With CUB, sewer and water ratepayers can be assured “we’ll do our homework,” Jenks said. And, by communicating with residents regularly on what’s going on in the two bureaus, CUB will have “thousands of customers behind us,” he said.

Anyone who thinks CUB’s presence will be mere “window dressing” should ask the folks at NW Natural, Jenks said. “I don’t think they would tell you our role in their rate case was window dressing.”

The Portland-based natural gas company recently asked for a 6.2 percent rate increase before the Oregon Public Utility Commission, but CUB and others opposed such a rate hike. The PUC eventually agreed to a 1.2 percent gas rate increase instead.

Susan Ackerman, the chairwoman of the PUC, testified on CUB’s behalf Wednesday. “I am very high on CUB as a consumer advocate,” she said.

Still, it’s pretty clear from the rapid approval of the CUB idea, and the relatively little public vetting of the idea, that there was some political calculations behind the decision.

Novick, in summing up why he supports the CUB idea, ended by contrasting it with folks who want to “turn over the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services to a group of unidentified amateur politicians.”

That was a clear reference to the Portland Public Water District initiative.

By moving CUB quickly into an advocacy role for residential ratepayers, the city might have some results to show for the idea by May. That’s when new rates might be set for 2014-15, and when the water district idea is likely to go before voters.

Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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