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Fireworks fail to go off at city hearing on utility rates

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - A relatively small crowd showed up Wednesday night at Parkrose High School to discuss Portland's water and sewer rates. Portland residents angry about their water and sewer bills had a chance to confront their elected leaders Wednesday night, in what was billed as the first-ever City Council public hearing devoted to utility rates.

The event at Parkrose High School, a part of town where pocketbook concerns are high and support for City Hall is relatively tepid, attracted little more than 100 people, a good number of them city employees and other City Hall insiders.

But anyone expecting fireworks from an angry citizenry came away disappointed, or relieved, depending on their perspective.

City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, proposes to raise the residential water and sewer rates a combined 4.9 percent on July 1. That would amount to a $4.44 monthly increase on the average $90.35 monthly water and sewer bill. Those are among the highest rates in the nation, though other cities are catching up as they address their combined sewer overflow problems as Portland has done.

The hearing came as a campaign heats up over a May 20 ballot initiative to strip control of the two bureaus from the City Council and hand them to an independent board.

Kent Craford, copetitioner of the initiative, complained about City Hall using “water and sewer bills as a credit card” to pay for unrelated programs. But only a handful of fellow citizens rose to complain about excess spending by the two bureaus unrelated to utility services, the issue that precipitated the ballot initiative.

An equal number showed up from Southwest Portland to plead with city commissioners not to cut $73,000 by ending funding for the Watershed Resource Center in their neighborhood.

Others testified in defense of the Bureau of Environmental Services’ green infrastructure programs, which some view as threatened if an independent board takes control of the bureaus. East Portland neighborhood leader Linda Robinson praised the BES for alleviating flooding in the Johnson Creek basin, where she grew up.

Kellie Barnes, who actively opposed the Water Bureau’s plan to fluoridate Portland’s water supply, said she later joined the bureau’s Budget Advisory Committee and now thinks the initiative poses more risks than benefits. “It may not be what you’re asking for,” she told critics of the bureaus in the audience.

To see city commissioners’ responses to citizen questions and comments Wednesday night, check www.portlandoregon.gov/Fish after April 9.