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Will the service for your drinking water suffer?

I am writing this even though merging the Oak Lodge Sanitary District (OLSD) and the Oak Lodge Water District (OLWD) has been discussed at the regular meetings of each district. I think citizens of Oak Grove are unaware of the destructive effort underway. A merger has been considered and mutually rejected by both OLWD and OLSD in the past.

The opinion I am expressing is my own and does not reflect the opinion of other Oak Lodge Water District Board members or any decision of OLWD.

In the fall of 2013 OLSD passed Resolution No. 13-08. This resolution “directs the OLSD General Manager to develop and begin a process for evaluating the potential benefits of merging with OLWD.”

Consultant Steve Donovan is in the process of conducting three feasibility studies to be completed by June. At a recent meeting of the OLSD, Mr. Donovan made a Power Point presentation to show potentially reduced increases in sanitary and drinking-water rates. The charts showing the slowing of rate increases indicated Mr. Donovan is predisposed to find justification for a merger. It is not unusual for consultants to perform studies to satisfy the predetermined outcomes wanted by the study’s sponsors.

I am opposed to a merger of OLSD and OLWD. I think the merger would result in a district that is less responsive to the public about drinking-water issues. The new board of five could not adequately review and oversee operations, services and finances of the newly merged district.

Now there are 10 commissioners, five on the OLSD Board and five on the OLWD Board. Each board has a specific focus and interest. The technology, service area and service delivery of each district is not congruent with the other. The services provided by OLSD will demand more attention by the board of the new district. Why? OLSD is more than $50 million in debt and has to deal with surface-water management’s increasing costs and new federal and state regulations anticipated to be imposed.

OLWD will be debt free this year. Some in Oak Grove believe that major projects in the OLWD should be debt financed rather than paid for from a cash reserve. They believe that rates should not be increased to support a reserve fund. I believe just the opposite. OLWD should pay-as-you-go, and have the cash reserves to do it.

Liabilities assumed by a merged district are significant. OLSD has only started to address inspection and maintenance of the wastewater collection system. OLWD has been upgrading the drinking-water piping infrastructure with an annual capital improvement program on a continuing basis. Sanitary and surface-water management have demands that will detract from the drinking-water issues. Rates to support upgrades in the drinking-water distribution system will be neglected; larger increases in rates for sanitary and surface-water management to mitigate deficiencies will be necessary.

Field personnel certifications are different for OLSD and OLWD. Equipment used in most field operations cannot be shared because of contamination between sewage and drinking water. Customer service issues are different. Significant customer relations issues will occur when customers cannot pay their monthly bill in full.

During the OLWD Board election process, the Clackamas Review on April 29, 2013, reported the following:

“Gibson also is greatly invested in the public. She hopes to create more community engagement and interest among youths in what the board is doing.

‘How do we influence our young people to do these important jobs if we aren’t out there in the schools?’ she asked.

Gibson thinks the water district lacks a sufficient disaster plan and would like to see one developed. She also believes that her knowledge of working with low-income communities and her fluency in Spanish will help her connect with ratepayers.

She also would like to emphasize Strategic Financial Planning so that incidents like last year’s 171 percent increase in the fixed-cost portion of residents’ water bills do not happen again. That was an increase (Commissioner Jim) Knapp felt was necessary since there had not been an increase for seven years.

Gray would like to see the board revisit the issue of joining with the sanitary district, an idea that the current board rejected because of the differences in the companies.”

Since Nancy Gibson and Dave Gray have been serving on the OLWD Board they have learned that: 1) there is a strategic plan, 2) OLWD through its membership in the Clackamas River Water Providers does have an outreach to the public and schools, 3) OLWD does have a disaster plan, 4) the OLWD strategic plan avoids mistakes of the past and provides for needs of the future.

With Nancy Gibson on the OLWD board, Terry Gibson the chairman of OLSD and Dave Gray wanting to “join with the sanitary district,” what are the real motives of OLSD and the newly elected OLWD board members regarding the merger?

The Oak Grove Community is best served by keeping drinking water issues closer to the people and keeping OLWD a separate entity. Separate boards allow commissioners to concentrate on issues that are significantly different in each enterprise and allows each one to specialize in efforts to maximize service while minimizing costs in each of their districts.

The effort to merge OLSD and OLWD is misguided.

Myron Martwick is chairman of Oak Lodge Water District Board of Commissioners.



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