Rising water bills, flood of controversy

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Every day, one way or another, we use water. We drink water, We watch it swirl down the drain and empty our wallets in the process.

Kent Craford wants an independent board to oversee water and sewer rates (Aug. 1, 2013, KOIN 6 News)
Kent Craford wants an independent board to oversee water and sewer rates (Aug. 1, 2013, KOIN 6 News)

Portland customers have been paying some of the highest sewer and water rates in the country, according to a 2012 study by American Water Intelligence. Of 50 US cities, Portland has the third-highest sewer rates and the eighth-highest water rates.

Critics blame politics and pet projects.

“This is just dysfunction and mismanagement and it has to stop so we’re ready to do something about it,” said Kent Craford, who is spearheading an effort pushing for changes that would take from the City Council the oversight of the water and sewer utilities and put them in the hands of an independently elected board.

“Rate-payers want a board that doesn’t hide behind the thick stone walls of City Hall,” he said.

Nick Fish, the commissioner in charge of the water bureau, told KOIN 6 News he understands the frustration from city residents. “I think we’ve made some mistakes,” he said.

Portland City Councilman Nick Fish (Aug. 1, 2013, KOIN 6 News)
Portland City Councilman Nick Fish (Aug. 1, 2013, KOIN 6 News)

Proponents of the new board maintain controversial decisions by the city — using money collected from water bill to renovate the Rose Festival headquarters, build a model home to promote water conservation, and the Portland loos.

“If the concern is let’s get back to focusing on the core mission of my bureaus I agree,” Fish said. “The mayor and I have made a commitment to do so.”

But just last week Fish the the city council approved $95,000 in grants for projects like ripping up a church parking lot because it floods, improving community gardens and disconnecting downspouts from a church-owned building.

The money comes from the Bureau of Environmental Services which handles sewers and sewer rates — and is also under Fish’s control.

Asked why rate-payers should be funding these projects, Fish said, “We have a program currently that incentivizes people to disconnect downspouts and actually there is a logic to it.”

The logic, he said, is the same for all of their projects — they’re part of the core environmental values and will save rate-payers money in the long run by helping to address stormwater runoff.

Craford calls that pork-barrel spending.

“Rate-payers are getting screwed,” he said. “Rate-payers want accountability, rate-payers want transparency.”

His plan for an independent board, he said, will offer that transparency.

But the city and other critics don’t believe that. They claim the proposed new board is a way to make water and sewer decisions in the shadows without anyone watching.

“I think this proposal is the greatest threat to the Bull Run watershed in 115 years,” Fish said.

In the proposal, the current oversight duties of the city auditor “do not apply” to the water district, critics point out. The board would welcome the auditor taking a look but said they will hire their own auditor.

The board could order the city council to take on debt, whether or not the council thinks it’s a good idea. And board members come up for election every three years — meaning some would fall during off-year elections, years when no city council members are up and less people typically vote.

“We think it’s really a Trojan horse,” said Bob Sallinger of the Audobon Society of Portland. “For those who think this is going to make government more transparent and accountable, we think it’s going to have the opposite effect and all you need to look at is the people backing it.”

Among those backers is the Portland Bottling Company.

“The bureau needs to be managed better and it would be a win/win for everybody,” said Portland Bottling Company president Tom Keenan.

He said high water and sewer rates cost them customers.

“We’re actually doing this not just for ourselves but for the entire city of Portland,” Keenan said. “The entire city of Portland has water rates that are too high.”

The argument is that there are ulterior motives. Craford dismisses that notion.

“I think what you’ll see is that the initiative sets forth a very straightforward system of zone elections.”

One big piece of the puzzle is the Big Pipe that was finished in 2011 at a cost of $1.4 billion. City officials said residents are still paying for it and that’s one big reason sewer rates are so high.

Another question about the proposed board is funding. Craford said all the contributions will be made public through the Secretary of State’s online system.

And Craford is also part of the group that has already filed a lawsuit against the city alleging improper spending of rate-payer money.

At this time, the City Auditor is determining if this proposal can move forward to a point where the group can begin collecting signatures to get it on the 2014 ballot.

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