Mayor Charlie Hales’ proposed budget reduces water and sewer rate spending for nonessential programs by more than $3.5 million.
Among other things, Hales proposes to eliminate the Bureau of Healthy Working Rivers, saving $780,000 a year in sewer rate funds, and transfer the cost of operating large park fountains to Parks & Recreation, which will save the Water Bureau $477,178 a year.
But those savings aren’t enough to satisfy the rate watchdogs who are suing the city for misspending such money in the first place. They are demanding the City Council reimburse ratepayers more than $50 million on what they call illegal spending on noncritical mission programs.
“That’s a good first step, but it’s a small amount of money compared to how much has been illegally appropriated over the past 10 years. And we’re looking for that money to be reimbursed to ratepayers,” says Kent Craford, director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city a number of years ago.
When he unveiled his budget last week, Hales denied he was proposing the savings in response to the lawsuit. Instead, he said they were intended to hold down future water and sewer rate increases. He has proposed a combined increase of 4.8 percent, less than that requested by the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the sewer system and manages stormwater.
After the suit was filed, the City Council also approved spending general fund dollars to reimburse the Water Bureau for $1.5 million in ratepayer funds spent to remodel the new Rose Festival Association headquarters. The council did not say the reimbursement was in response to the lawsuit, either.
Attorney John DiLorenzo, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, suspects the council does not want to admit it has spent ratepayer funds on programs and projects that are not directly related to the core missions of the two bureaus. The lawsuit challenges previous spending on a wide range of programs. They include the former public campaign financing program, purchasing unused land from the Riverview Cemetery, paying for the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup, and relocating water pipes in advance of transit projects.
“We applaud what Mayor Hales’ is proposing, but that’s an insignificant amount of money compared to what we’re asking for,” DiLorenzo says.
DiLorenzo says he has asked the Multnomah County Circuit Court to make summary judgment rulings on four of the challenged programs this summer. They total more than $8 million.
DiLorenzo does not believe the City Attorney’s Office will agree to a stipulated set of facts on many — or maybe any — of them. But he hopes the court will at least establish a test for determining what the council can and cannot legally fund with ratepayer dollars from now on.
Here are the ratepayer-funded programs that Mayor Charlie Hales is proposing be shifted to general fund financing:
Water Bureau — $477,178 total
• Parks’ fountains: $477,178
Bureau of Environmental Services — $2,293,921 total
• Invasive species removal (Protect the Best): $125,000
• Tree plantings (Friends of Trees contract work): $685,552 ongoing
• Tree plantings (one-time): $125,000
• Grey to Green Youth Conservation Corps: $175,000
• Elm tree protection: $62,500
• Tree inspector: $81,000
• Forest Park ranger: $72,000
• Willamette River stewardship: $105,869
• Environmental education and outreach: $112,000
• Street sweeping: $750,000