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Portlanders getting utility discounts aren't doing what they promised
A spot check by city auditors found half the Portland residents who pledged to manage stormwater on-site to get utility discounts aren't doing what they promised.
An audit released Friday by the Portland City Auditor noted that eight of 15 residents enjoying Clean River Rewards discounts had not disconnected their downspouts as promised, or were diverting water from their property onto the street, contrary to the goals of the discount program.
The program to reward residents for managing their own stormwater causes a $1.70 monthly rate increase for other residents to pay for the discounts, auditors noted.
The audit's main finding was that the city Bureau of Environmental Services has experienced tremendous success by enlisting private property owners to keep stormwater on site rather than burdening the city's combined sewer and stormwater system. That enabled the city to put in smaller pipes in the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project designed to prevent sewage overflows during storms into the Willamette River and Columbia River Slough.
However, auditors said the bureau has a poor understanding of which property owners are doing what, so it isn't that clear about the impact of those improvements. More than 30,000 properties, primarily homes, have never been inspected to verify residents are doing what they promised to get the discounts.
Auditors got a "great" response from the Bureau of Environmental Services about their findings, said Elizabeth Pape, senior management auditor.
Mike Jordan, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services, said he welcomed the audit and is already working to address some of the issues raised.
BES has three different databases for stormwater improvements that don't "talk to each other very well," Jordan said. The agency has identified a need for better software and business systems, he said, and added three employees in its 2018-19 budget.
It's not cost-effective to send inspectors to each of the 34,600 properties getting discounts in the Clean River Rewards program, Jordan said. But the bureau likely will begin its own spot-checking of properties to verify the promised systems were installed and are working as intended, he said. A statistical analysis could reveal if any changes are needed in the program.
The audit did not evaluate whether the city's stormwater billing systems are fair.
A Portland Tribune investigation in February found significant inequities in bureau charges to residents for off-site stormwater management. Though the city facilities benefit everyone equally, single-family residents pay $18.60 a month, while those living in condo and apartment high-rises pay as little as 61 cents to $1 a month, based on a spot check of utility bills. Residents of medium-sized apartments pay roughly $2 to $3 a month.
The audit did not evaluate rates, Pape said, because BES is about to undergo a multi-year review of its rate-setting.
Jordan said the agency is now preparing a request for proposals to hire a consultant for that effort.
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