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Council considers water, sewer rate increases

Some commissions question small portion of proposed increases

The City Council appeared ready to approve most of the combined 7.5 percent rate increase proposed by the water and sewer bureaus in next year's budget.

The Water Bureau has proposed increasing rates 11 percent. The Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the sewer system, has proposed raising rates 5.9 percent. Because of the different percent of the rates of each agency on the combined water and sewer bill that Portlanders receive, the combined increase would be 7.5 percent.

During a Tuesday morning work on the budgets for the two agencies, the only serious rate-related issue seemed to be whether to allow the Water Bureau to increase rates 2 percent to pay for going from quarterly to monthly billings. Water Commissioner Randy Leonard supported the change, saying it monthly bills would be easier for many Portlanders to pay. Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz suggested they saw it as an unnecessary increase, however.

Next year's budget takes effect on July 1. The council is not expected to approve it for another month or more.

Both the water and sewer bureaus have been accused of spending rate payer funds on projects not directly related to their core mission. Such criticisms were included in a March 2011 audit and are at the heart of a current lawsuit filed on behalf of a number of rate payers in Multnomah County Circuit Court. In response to a request from the rate payers' lawyers, the city has released a list of potential non-mission critical spending items totaling $127 million in recent years.

No one on the council or from either agency suggested rate payer funds were being improperly spent during the session, however. In fact, a represented of the BES citizen Budget Advisory Committee said the committee could not identify in significant savings in the mission critcal portions of the agency's proposed budget.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, says that the committee supported cutting programs which were non-mission critical or which could be postponed to future budget years. As a result the rate increase was reduced from 6.5% to 5.9%. However, the committee did recommend against further cuts which would affect mission critical programs and which it felt could result in system failures and increased expenses in the future.

Representatives of both agencies listed numerous maintenance and improvement projects to justify the proposed rate increases. Water Bureau Director David Shaff said his agency recently caught a break when the Oregon Health Authority ruled his agency did not have to build a potentially expensive treatment plant at the Bull Run reservoir which supplies most of the city's water.