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Portlanders could face sewer, water rate hikes

Portland homeowners could face about a $4.50 monthly increase in their water and sewer bills in July, under 2014-15 budgets proposed by City Commissioner Nick Fish.

Fish, who oversees the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, asked both agencies to cut some existing programs so they could keep the combined sewer and water rate hike for 2014-15 under 5 percent. Fish’s recommendations, which amount to a combined increase of about 4.9 percent, were forwarded recently to Mayor Charlie Hales, who will take them into account when he submits his recommended city budget in coming weeks.

“It’s very much in the mayor’s hands now,” said Jim Blackwood, Fish’s policy director and liaison to the Bureau of Environmental Services.

The proposed water rate would rise about 7 percent, up $1.93 per month from the current $27.61. Sewer and storm drainage rates would rise 4 percent, up $2.51 per month from the current $62.74.

Both bureaus have come under harsh attacks for rate increases several years in a row that topped the inflation rate. Much of the increased spending was due to the Big Pipe project, which eliminated most untreated sewage discharges into the Willamette River and Columbia Slough, as required by a lawsuit. There also have been numerous water system enhancements, many of which are very controversial.

Past city officials, particularly ex-City Commissioner Randy Leonard and ex-Mayor Sam Adams, also pushed through several projects paid by sewer and water rates that the city auditor and other critics concluded were unrelated to utility services. Critics say ratepayer-provided funds were being used as a slush fund for commissioners’ pet projects.

Critics led by then-lobbyist Kent Craford filed a lawsuit against the city, which is still pending. However, the City Council in effect acknowledged some of the criticism was fair by retroactively paying for some of the controversial programs out of the general fund, essentially repaying ratepayers.

Critics also qualified a city ballot initiative for the May primary that will ask voters to strip the two bureaus from City Council control, and put an independently elected board in charge.

Mindful of the criticism and the potential that voters will remove the two bureaus from city control, Fish asked both agencies to reduce their operating budgets roughly 2.5 percent for 2014-15.

As a result, the Water Bureau proposed cuts of $1.4 million for 2014-15, plus $14.1 million in reduced capital project spending. Most of the reduced capital spending involves projects that weren’t ready to move forward or faced other issues, said Sonia Schmanski, Fish’s policy director and liaison to the Water Bureau. “It’s mostly timing,” Schmanski said. “There was no kicking the can down the road just for the sake of making budget cuts.”

The cuts would eliminate the equivalent of 11 fulltime positions from the Water Bureau, though only four of those positions are currently filled.

The Bureau of Environmental Services, which provides sewer and storm drainage and other environmental services, would cut several small programs totalling $2.3 million. No positions would be eliminated.

At Fish’s direction, city staff tentatively plan a public hearing before the City Council in late March on the sewer and water budgets and the resulting rate increases they would require.

Usually citizens don’t even hear about the projected sewer and water rate increases until much later in the budget process, shortly before final approval, Blackwood said. He called it “unprecedented” that residents are learning fairly early about the proposed rate increases, and then having a chance to testify about them in a special public hearing on the subject.