Households to see surge in water rates in 2012

The Lake Oswego City Council has unanimously approved fees and charges for 2012 that include an average 25.5 percent increase in water rates.

The water rate hike is set to take effect in March. Sewer rates, on the other hand, won't rise as much as previously anticipated.

According to recent council reports, the updated fees will make Lake Oswego's utility rates - which average $244 every two months - the second highest in the metro area, following Portland, where utilities reportedly cost residents an average $256 for the same period.

Driving the water rate increases are millions of dollars in planned infrastructure projects.

Finance Director Ursula Euler said a partnership between Lake Oswego and Tigard to rebuild Lake Oswego's water system and expand it to supply Tigard is 'starting up and gaining steam.' The city needs to build capacity so it can issue bonds to make the investment over the next few years.

The water initiative isn't unlike the Lake Oswego Interceptor Sewer project, known as LOIS, which finished early and under budget this year.

'We issued $95 million in debt to pay for LOIS, and now we're at a level to sustain that,' Lake Oswego City Manager Alex McIntyre said. As a result, residents will see a 3 percent rate increase to pay for sewer operating costs, an impact smaller than initially anticipated.

In the works for several years, the water system is the next '$100 million project,' McIntyre said, noting that by partnering with Tigard, 'it's less expensive than if we had pursued the project on our own. The water system is aging, and the time for its replacement is here.'

He added that at the beginning of this decade, the city had foregone rate increases for somewhere between five and eight years. 'Eventually they catch up with you,' McIntyre said.

James Lewis was one of several people to testify against the water rate hikes. He said he and his wife have lived in Lake Oswego for 20 years, and they reside in a 'modest condo' that requires no outdoor watering. Yet his bills have climbed by 68 percent over the past 20 months, he told the council.

'This kind of growth is unsustainable,' Lewis said. 'We're in an economic recession. Living around me are people who have lost their jobs, a single mom who lives across the street from me, an individual who can't make his monthly condo association payments and a couple whose home is being foreclosed on.

'I'm concerned Lake Oswego is becoming unaffordable … We're a diverse community … I think we need to keep it that way. Double-digit increases in utility rates will inevitably cause many of our citizens to have to relocate and (rate increases) will change the diverse nature of our community.'

Council president Bill Tierney, leading the meeting because the mayor was out of the country, said the council has tried to ease the burden of water system projects on citizens.

'I think we've done a lot of work in that area, but I can't say with any success,' Tierney said. 'I think what we have proposed are the rate increases that are necessary to fund the rebuilding of our water system.'

Councilor Donna Jordan said anyone with unusually high charges should consider a free water audit from the city. Auditors can check for pipe leaks or other issues causing water use - and fees - to soar.

Councilor Sally Moncrieff noted that citizens struggling to pay their bills should check with the finance department about utility assistance.

To offset utility rate increases, councilor Jeff Gudman said he hopes officials will consider a reduction in the city's property tax rate when they are mapping out the 2012-13 spending plan. Councilor Mike Kehoe said he, too, supported that concept.

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