Scappoose will continue talks on raising water rates to cover unbalanced fund

As predicted nearly three years ago, Scappoose officials will once again consider raising water utility rates as the city’s reserve funds move closer to drying up.

The city faces a potential revenue shortfall of nearly $690,000 in water department funds for the next fiscal year. An emergency fund that has helped cover steep water-related costs is expected to soon dwindle down to about $71,000. Instead of raising its rates in recent years, the city has relied on using its contingency dollars and shifting around funds.

“Now those reserves are pretty much gone,” said City Manager Jon Hanken.

The city’s water department is bringing in nearly $1.22 million in revenue, but spending nearly $1.91 million in required costs. To even out, revenues would need to increase by 56.4 percent.

There appear to be few options to raise revenues without having customers — city residents — pay more. How any potential rate increases take shape are still undetermined, but will soon be fleshed out by the city council and its public works advisory committee.

In late 2009, a handful of vocal city residents began raising concerns at emotionally charged council meetings about a proposal to raise water rates to help pay for needed maintenance and loans. In hard economic times, the city should do all it can to diminish the burden on struggling residents, they protested.

At the time, city staff were recommending setting a fixed water rate with an extra charge of five cents per 100 gallons used for residential customers. Based on estimates, that would have raised the average residents’ monthly water costs by as much as $59.20.

According to a Sept. 13 city staff report, increasing monthly rates by $15 would create an additional $404,000 in revenue. That would still require a hefty chunk from the general fund to subsidize the water department.

In 2014, Columbia County plans to replace the bridge on JP West Road, making it wider and with sidewalks. To accommodate that project, the city would need to relocate both its water and sewer lines, which will likely cost nearly $1 million.

The city is also continuing to pay down a water-related debt burden of around $300,000.

Just as three years ago, Hanken predicts upcoming city council meetings on the topic will draw passionate residents striving to keep their water bills down.

“Anytime you start talking water rates... It is something that is going to bring people out,” he said.

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