Bend Councilors Vote to Buy Water Pipe Steel Early

Despite Critics, 6-1 Decision on $4 Million Contract

BEND, Ore. - Despite criticism from several speakers, Bend city councilors voted 6-1 Wednesday night to spend $4 million on steel pipe for a $70 million surface water project, with the strong majority insisting the city has done its homework, taken ample public input and is doing what they?re convinced is best for city residents and the area?s waterways.

More than a half-dozen foes spoke before the vote in which only Councilor Jim Clinton voiced opposition, as he has from the beginning.

They included attorney Bill Buchanan, who along with other critics says the city should stop splitting its water supply and instead go with what they call a much cheaper option of drilling more groundwater wells and using that source exclusively.

Others raised concern about being what one called ?financially reckless? and buying the steel early, based on forecasts that steel prices will continue to rise before the start of construction next year. Another concern is what Buchanan noted will be more water rate hikes, of 7 to 10 percent a year, for several years to pay the project?s cost.

Councilor Mark Capell began the council?s discussion, saying he figured he?d been in more than 100 hours of meetings on the topic, and that it was clear those opposed to the steel purchase were against the overall project.

?I still believe the water project is still the right thing to do for the community in the long term,? he said, pointing to an estimated savings of $2.3 million by buying the pipe now. (City Engineer Tom Hickman said that?s due in part to the fact that, ?With the way the contract came out, we weren?t expecting this kind of low bid.?)

Frank Turek, who chaired an infrastructure citizen advisory committee, said most on the panel are water resources professionals with decades of experience, and that they believe ?this is the best option long-term, for you folks to protect the health, safety and welfare of the city of Bend.?

Councilor Tom Greene saw an upside -- more public involvement -- in the criticism, which included one person vowing to seek petition signatures to opposed to the project. He assured there had been a great deal of public involvement, and said he didn?t believe the city was acting as a speculator in buying the steel now, rather than in a few months.

?I haven?t heard anything here that changes my mind, but I?m excited to see people involved,? Greene said, later noting that the project ?helps put more water back in the Deschutes.?

City Manager Eric King said talking to other Oregon cities indicated the early steel contract ?is very common practice, to enter into contracts for raw materials, to take advantage of pricing.?

Councilor Jodie Barram reacted the strongest to the criticism, accusing some of distributing ?inflammatory, misguided information? that failed to look at the big picture and the benefits of the project to the Deschutes River Basin.

She noted that the very low levels in Tumalo Creek of late resulted from a project to improve stream flows long-term, undertaken by Tumalo Irrigation District. ?The city uses a fraction of what Tumalo Irrigation District takes,? she said.

?I get very passionate about our rivers and Tumalo Creek,? Barram said. ?This project provides a steady source of safe drinking water to our residents. I have gone to many meetings on my own, to make sure that we are listening and understanding? the facts and decisions.

?I have yet to be convinced to abandon (the project) and go to the legal risk of going to all groundwater,? she said. ?This $4 million is not taken lightly, and we are trying to spend tax dollars as wisely as possible with the information we have. We?re not hiding anything. It?s all public information.

?But please stop putting out misinformation and inflammatory, incorrect suppositions, because it?s really not conducive to the conversations that we?re having,? Barram said. ?We are not speculating. We are buying steel in a very sound, contractual basis. It?s an appropriate time and an appropriate cost.?

Several councilors and King also noted a large turnover in both the staff and council since the troubled decisions of the past, from purchase of bad buses to the multi-million dollar Juniper Utilities legal fight the city eventually lost (and in which Buchanan represented utility owner Jan Ward).

?We want sound decisions,? King said. ?We?re not looking to rush this.?

Councilor Scott Ramsay said the decision to proceed on the water project came before he was elected last year, but that ?through all of my reading and all of my studying in my first six months, I would have made the same decision, to stay with a dual water source.?

Councilor Kathie Eckman said they were ?continually reminded of what the council did years ago -- missteps, bad purchases. I think it?s time to get past that. ... We?re making a purchase early, based on good economic information from our staff and engineers. If I were an investor, this would make sense for me.?

Mayor Jeff Eager said the question is, ?Does the city want to abandon a source that provides half its water supply?? He said they?ve been told ?it will be a lot more expensive over time to replace (surface water) with ground water,? and that there?s a ?legal risk? as well, to secure those water rights instead.

?I wish we could leave it the way it was, and continue to us it as we have for a very long time,? Eager said. ?But federal (clean water) regulations, fire risk (dropping ash in the water) and deteriorating pipe means we can?t keep doing what we?re doing. Investing in surface water is the least bad option.?

However, Eager said he struggled with the steel purchase decision, but that despite the risks, if they don?t move now, ?our contractor is going to be back here in two months with the same projections, and a relatively high price in March or April, asking us to buy now.?

The last comments before the vote went to foe Clinton, who said he feels the city has limited its study of options, rather than consider ?a more modest project to use surface water,? a ?different, more innovative project? that would be ?much more environmentally sensitive and ?do a better job of protecting the Tumalo Creek watershed than this project, in my opinion.?

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