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Scappoose City Council takes public comment, discusses water rate hike

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - The dam on the South Fork Scappoose, one of the citys main surface water sources, is in need of maintenance. Aside from the need to remove nearly 3 feet of sediment from behind the dam, one of the dams drainage pipes is in need of repair. The Scappoose City Council punted on a proposal to increase the city’s water rates after hearing public testimony at a standing-room-only city council meeting Monday, Aug. 19.

Under the proposed draft resolution, recommended by the city’s Public Works Advisory Committee, residential water rates would increase by $15 — from $15.70 per month to $30.70 per month — starting Sept. 21. Larger meter sizes would be subject to proportional increases, said Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken.

In addition to the fixed rate charges, the committee recommended commodity rate increases of about five percent for customers using more than 7,500 gallons per month.

Supporters of the rate adjustments said they recognized the need to raise water rates in order to pay for maintenance and repair on Scappoose’s water system. Others felt that the rate increases were too high and abrupt and reflected poor resource management by the city.

Scappoose resident Ted Rice asked city councilors why the monthly base rate for water is proposed to increase about 76 percent while the usage rate would only increase 5 percent.

Hanken explained the fixed cost would represent 52 percent of a monthly residential water bill, and the commodity rate would represent 48 percent.

“This balance would help ensure revenues are there for debt service and future projects.” Hanken said.

Tom Clark, another Scappoose resident, asked if any calculations had been done on increasing the usage rate without increasing the base rate, saying that “small water users” such as himself weren’t being treated fairly.

“The problem with that is people would cut back on usage dramatically, so you wouldn’t generate enough revenue,” Hanken replied.

Many other residents expressed their feelings about the rate increases being too abrupt at a time when the economy still hasn’t fully recovered from the recession.

Not all of the councilors were convinced by that argument.

“Every time we raise rates, we get a full room saying, ‘This isn’t the time,’” said City Council President Larry Meres. “We’re deferring a lot of things right now. I’ll be paying the same as everybody else.”

After hearing discussion on the topic, the city council decided to look into less abrupt rate increases that would be phased in between two and three years, as well as a hardship program for low-income families and individuals who may not be able to afford the rate increases.

In 2009, the city council denied a resolution to phase-in a monthly water rate increase of $5 per year over the course of three years, totaling the same $15 increase currently on the table. The fixed cost portion of the water rate has not been adjusted since 2003.

“We hoped the housing market would increase to fund [water system] replacements,” said Councilor Jason Meshell. “Our hopes have not been fulfilled.”

The Scappoose City Council will meet again in September to discuss a revised rate adjustment proposal.

The city is considering the rate increases due to its failure to sell timberland in the Gourlay Creek Watershed in June, which would have generated an estimated $440,000 for the city’s water fund. For fiscal year 2013, the city’s water funds have a projected shortfall totaling $689,144. The proposed rate increase is projected to generate $425,000, Hanken said.

The city anticipates bidding the timber sale again in the fall, potentially generating $220,000 in revenue for FY14, and another $220,000 in FY15. Those funds, however, would not go into lowering water rates, but would be allocated to water infrastructure repair and maintenance.

Hanken cited multiple maintenance and renovation projects to the city’s water and sewer systems as a driving force behind the rate adjustments. Hanken added that raw water lines delivering water from the city’s surface sources are in need of replacement — a project he estimated costing nearly $10 million.