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Lean city budget to increase utility rates

Water rates will likely rise 15.5 percent in 2012-13; sewer by 7.5 percent

The 2012-13 budget for the city of St. Helens has the attributes of a long-distance runner.

'We're very lean. We have no fat,' said Finance Director Jon Ellis at a city council meeting June 6.

The $28.8 million budget planned for the upcoming fiscal year- which begins July 1 - includes a reduction in services and an uptick in city water and sewer rates. City council is expected to adopt the budget on June 20.

'I know that it wasn't easy,' Budget Committee member Bill Eagle said about the budget process at a public hearing last week. 'There was a lot of pain involved.'

Water rates will likely increase by 15.5 percent to help pay off a loan the city used to build a water filtration plant in 2005 to meet federal clean water regulations, according to the city's budget message.

Before 2007 and the economic downturn, Ellis said the city had planned to gradually increase water rates over several years, hoping that population growth and an increased demand would keep the rates low while paying off the debt. But then the economy fell apart and what little growth occurred couldn't make much of a dent in the loan.

Sewer rates are also expected to increase by 7.5 percent.

The budget trims personal services by approximately half a million dollars by keeping certain open staff positions unfilled. This decision divides the public works director position between two current staff members. Also, the city will contract for prosecution services at municipal court instead of hiring a prosecutor. This will cut one day from the court's operations.

In addition, Ellis said, city employees are now paying 2 percent of their medical premiums and no one is taking a cost of living adjustment.

'That's quite a big concession by bargaining units,' Ellis said.

The budget covers the five city departments and 64 full-time positions. In addition to staff reductions and financial adjustments, there will also be cuts to spending for materials, services and supplies.

In the budget message, Ellis wrote because of the slow economic recovery, expenditures will likely continue to outpace revenue growth and the city anticipates drawing money from reserve funds to continue operations.

Currently, the city has 'maintained healthy reserves for over the past 10 years,' Ellis said, but every year, the city has to dip a little deeper.

At the meeting on June 6, Ellis put together a graph to illustrate department-wide staffing cuts over the last five years. All the departments, from the police to the library, have experienced drastic cuts, he said. Many are operating with half the number of people, but are serving a larger city population.