BEND, Ore. - Bend City Councilor Mark Capell said hiking water and sewer rates "can be the hardest thing we can vote on" – and indeed, there was lots of debate Wednesday night before the council voted 4-3 to boost sewer rates 9 percent and water rates 5 percent – but not quite as soon as proposed.
Instead, councilors agreed to a motion from Councilor Sally Russell, seconded by colleague Doug Knight, to delay the planned July 1st rate hikes to October 1st, pushing them past the irrigation season when people pay the most for water.
No one on the council disagreed that a citizen advisory panel's proposed rates, to cover badly needed system upgrades, are needed, although there was some grumbling that past councils had, in essence, kicked the can down the road by taking a politically easier stance and not raising rates to put money away for – thus leaving it up to them to face the bill and have residents foot it.
"This is a really difficult decision for me," Russell said, knowing her proposed delay will cost the city some of the funds it's trying to put toward millions of dollars in water and sewer projects. City Manager Eric King said just the three-month delay is expected to cost the city $600,000 to $700,000 in revenues it otherwise would collect in sewer and water bills.
The Sewer Infrastructure Advisory Committee had recommended the rate increases be a bit larger now, to reduce the ones needed later.
"From my perspective, the ratepayers are already experiencing some sticker shock," said Knight, noting that residents have seen rates double over the past 10 years and "want some relief."
Capell provided the contrasting information, as he often does, reminding colleagues that a chart they were shown earlier of what Oregon cities charge for sewer and water rates puts Bend "in the middle of the pack, an appropriate place to be when we're building major infrastructure. That says we've been fiscally responsible."
"Yes, a rate increase can be a very difficult thing, and from the council's perspective can be the hardest thing we can vote on," generating the most e-mails and negative reaction, Capell told his colleagues.
"It's not a pleasant thing to do, but it's the responsible thing to do," he said. "We can postpone it, or spread it out over a couple of years. But in both cases, the ratepayers will end up paying more" down the road.
"I think the responsible thing to do is rip the Band-Aid off, take the heat," he said.
Colleague Jodie Barram sided with Russell, saying the proposed rate is valid, but she's "also very sensitive to community concerns." Having been told the delay won't stall the projects in the pipeline, she said, "I think (the delay) shows care for the community. … It mitigates some of the pain and discomfort."
And there has been pain, all agree. Mayor Jim Clinton pulled out a chart he'd done, showing that combined water-sewer rates in Bend have jumped 72 percent since 2007, including a whopping 91 percent on sewer bills, while the Consumer Price Index rose just 14 percent over that time – and Bend's median household income actually fell 1 percent.
"These rate increases have been totally out of sync from what residents have experienced, in terms of income and all the other costs of services they buy," Clinton said.
The mayor urged colleagues to defer the rate hikes a few months, until a renewed discussion early next year of overhauling the whole water and sewer rate structure. Clinton has pushed for years for a fairer structure in which heavy users pay more than lighter ones, both in water and sewer capacity – something that's not the case now. Councilors have agreed, but it's a complex issue, easier said than done.
"The sewer (rate hike) is particularly bothersome," he said. "Bend is one of the few cities with a constant sewer bill, no matter what capacity the household uses. That's just so basically unfair that I don't think we should be talking" rate hikes until that is changed, he said.
"Unlike Mark, who wants to divorce the rate hike from the structures (decision), I think they are intimately intertwined," Clinton said. "Smaller homes have been overpaying (on sewer bills) for a long, long time."
The average total water, sewer and storm water bill for households is "getting up to $1,100 a year" in Bend, Clinton said, which has "a huge impact on people."
"I agree, the rate structure is wrong," Capell responded, while noting that the city staff is setting up some advisory groups to bring in more information.
"We're expecting by the first quarter to be adjusting the rate structure to have a more fair process," Capell said, telling Clinton, "I love Ross Perot graphs like that. You can do a lot with numbers."
The goal in the rate structure changes, Capell said, is a "revenue-neutral change. The goal is for large users to pay more, small users to pay less … but you have a revenue (need) they have to hit."
Councilor Victor Chudowsky looked farther back, to when the city added sewers in the ‘80s – funded largely by federal grants and not ratepayers. They were built well beyond the needed capacity for the time, he said, crediting the councilors of that time for their foresight.
But colleague Scott Ramsay said councils since then had, in essence, kicked the can down the road and not set rates that would put aside funds for the upgrades they knew would be needed.
"I have said all along, we need to put planning ahead of politics," Ramsay said. "Maybe previous councils just decided to push it off, make sure the ratepayers weren't upset. So we're sitting here today with the result of those previous decisions."
"I think it's fiscally prudent and responsible to get back on track," he said. "We are at (sewer) capacity in many parts of the city, which is hindering economic growth, job growth. If we continue to cripple ourselves because we want to ease the burden and not take the (political) hit, then I have a problem with that."
"I am not advocating to raise rates all the time," Ramsay said. "But this puts money in the coffers for future councils to not have to make these kinds of decisions."
Six new fire engines; support for canal-piping plans
It was far less divisive – unanimous, in fact – when councilors agreed to spend $2.98 million on six new water-pumping fire engines to replace ones that will be 20 years old at the time of retirement in about a year.
Improvements in the South Dakota-made pumpers range from a tighter turning radius to reduced braking distance, cleaner emissions, fuel efficiency, back-up and side view cameras, LED lights and a heated pump compartment, meaning they won't have to be drained during the winter. They'll have air bags, and be quieter, with better water flow, too.
Near the end of the night, councilors took up another controversial issue and voted 7-0 to send a letter to Deschutes County commissioners in support of a Central Oregon Irrigation District land-use request the county takes up at a July 2nd hearing.
Under land-use rules in much of the county, irrigation districts have an "outright" authority to pipe irrigation canals - but not in a part of the Bend outskirts north of town known as the "urban area reserve." COID is seeking to change that, but has run into loud opposition from about 40 homeowners near canals who are fighting the plans.
Capell said the irrigation district wants to pipe a stretch of canal south of the city's Juniper Ridge project, in part to boost the output of a hydroelectric plant built in the area, but also for familiar reasons on the High Desert -- that the old canals lose 40-50 percent of the water they carry to seepage through the rock walls or evaporation.
Capell said he understood why residents were fighting to keep the canals they enjoy seeing behind their properties, much as he and his wife did when they first moved to the area. But he said he'd talked to the assessor, and that claims of reduced property values were unfounded.
Knight brought up the often-discussed option of lining the canals instead. Capell said that would not only reduce the flow needed for the hydroelectric plant but eliminate stock runs in the winter, as the freeze-thaw cycle would cause freeze-thaw cycle problems with the concrete liners. It also would not address the safety issue of more people (such as kids) living near canals in more urban areas.
Ramsay said it's unfortunate for people living in a neighborhood called Canal View Estates, but added, "We have to make a decision about the greater good of the entire community, and piping our canals is going to be critical long-term for the health of our rivers and water conservation."