March ballot measure asks for a one-time 18 percent rate hike

West Linn residents will get to vote in March whether or not to increase their water rates by 18 percent to address the city’s aging water infrastructure.

The ballot measure resolution was passed by the city council during its Monday meeting.

The one-time rate increase would raise funds to start replacing and repairing the city’s water pipeline system. Under the city charter, the city cannot raise rates by more than 5 percent annually without voter approval. The one-time rate hike would be in addition to the annual 5 percent increase.

According to the resolution, the ballot question will read: “Shall city protect water quality by funding water system repair and replacement projects using rate increases from all water customers?”

The summary on the ballot will read: “For West Linn to continue to meet state and federal water quality standards, the city’s state mandated water system master plan identifies capital projects such as replacing approximately 66,000 feet of asbestos cement pipes; 11,500 feet of galvanized and steel pipes; and other deteriorating pipes. The rate increase will provide funds to undertake these projects.

“To fund these projects and continue the current level of service, a one-time 18 percent rate increase is proposed for all customers. This will result in an increase of $3.18 per month to approximately half of residential customers who pay $17.67 for the base rate of 700 cubic feet or less of water per month. Customers who use more water will pay an additional $0.37 per 100 cubic feet, which is 748 gallons.”

“This is truly a monumental measure for us,” Council President Jenni Tan said.

The city’s water system includes six reservoirs, five pump stations and 120 miles of transmission lines.

West Linn currently has more than 10 miles of pipe, about 10 percent, overdue for replacement due to size or condition. Water main breaks occur nearly monthly and have cost the city $26,000 in repairs so far this year alone. On Dec. 6, another leak occurred on Mapleton Drive in the Robinwood area.

by: CITY OF WEST LINN - A water main break occurred Dec. 6 on Mapleton Drive in the Robinwood neighborhood, affecting 12 homes.

Jim Whynot, water operations supervisor, said, “The leak was on a galvanized service connected to an asbestos cement water main. ... Inspection of the pipe after we pulled it out showed several holes. It was in such bad shape that when we were digging up the service at the main to shut it off, it broke, resulting in having to shut down the main, affecting 12 homes.”

The city contends the current 5 percent limit does not cover the costs of routine maintenance and improvements. According to Chief Finance Officer Richard Seals, the city currently spends $210,000 operating the water system. However, the city needs another $540,000 a year to start bringing the pipeline to current standards over the next 20 years.

Since the 1990s, the city’s water master plan has required $750,000 annually for line improvements and replacements. Those fixes and expenditures have not happened as the city’s water revenue has continually decreased with better water conservation and expenses have steadily increased, including annual hikes from the South Fork Water Board for acquiring the water.

According to city staff, operating costs outstrip revenues from water sales by nearly $500,000 a year. To offset those costs, the city has deferred line maintenance.

The recommended water rate increase of 18 percent would generate the extra $500,000 annually the city needs to start making upgrades and repairs.

Residents voted down a 2010 measure asking for a water rate increase. Looking back at that defeat, city staff thinks the question was too confusing. The city wants to try again in 2013.

Several members of the utility advisory board spoke in favor of the rate increase.

Ray Kindley, UAB chairman, said, “The UAB has spent two years looking at this issue. ... Frankly, there is an urgent need.”

“We failed to invest in our water delivery system for quite some time,” said Erik Simhauser, UAB member. “We’ve got an aging, antiquated water system. We need to start thinking about our future needs.”

Two residents spoke against the proposed measure. Former mayor David Dodds called the city’s education campaign a comedy and Bob Thomas said the measure was “hogwash” and a “blatant attempt to hornswoggle residents,” adding that “much of the moneys have been frittered away.”

“I think this resolution is full with so much what I would call unsubstantiated baloney,” Thomas said.

However, the majority of the council was in support of the measure.

“I think this is a very prudent approach to finance our water infrastructure maintenance,” Councilor Jody Carson said. “I look forward to this measure passing in March.”

“We’re dealing with a long-range plan that will make our water system secure,” Councilor Mike Jones said.

Tan said, “Anything we need to do to make our system more robust and safer, I think we need to do.”

Mayor John Kovash was not present at the meeting and Councilor Teri Cummings, who has voiced her opposition to the measure previously, voted against it. Cummings said the city already has the funds to “properly maintain” the pipes and said the council was being irresponsible.

The vote on the ballot measure will be March 12.

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