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Two city agencies that work together to maintain the sewer system should make changes, a new report says.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF PORTLAND - Sewer maintenance requires vehicles with special pumps and tools, and repair work on them has been delayed.A decades-old arrangement for sewer repair and maintenance in Portland needs to be re-assessed to better serve ratepayers, according to an audit report released by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero on Tuesday.

The Bureau of Environmental Services pays the Bureau of Transportation to maintain a system of more than 2,000 miles of pipes that collect and transfer wastewater and stormwater. The environmental services bureau paid the transportation bureau about $23 million in ratepayer funds in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

"This longstanding agreement has had mixed results and comes with inefficiencies that cost ratepayers. We make recommendations for both Bureaus to finetune staffing, finances, materials management, and to re-assess their decades-old arrangement," said the audit released on Sept. 14.

According to the audit, some key maintenance targets set by the environmental services bureau were not met by the transportation bureau, including inspecting sewers and repairing sewer mains and laterals. Transportation was good about responding to calls for urgent sewer problems and was on track to clean the system over 12 years. However, the audit found.

The transportation bureau said its performance was diminished by ongoing staffing shortages and delays in getting its specialized maintenance vehicles fixed.

"Lack of funding was not a cause of Transportation's missing the production targets set by Environmental Services. Transportation spent about $2 million less than the agreement allowed in each of the last six years," the audit said.

The audit also found that the transportation bureau needed to review how it calculated indirect costs to fund maintenance services and better control and secure materials used for maintenance and repair.

The audit recommended that the two bureaus should re-evaluate the pros and cons of the agreement for sewer maintenance to determine whether the partnership best serves the interests of the public.

"The agreement between Environmental Services and Transportation has been in place for decades. We recommended in a 2010 audit that both Bureaus evaluate the advantages and challenges of maintaining the partnership. This continues to be relevant today as many of the same issues remain, including: Provision of sewer maintenance and repair is not aligned with Transportation's organizational goals and objectives; and each Bureau uses a separate data system to track the work on and condition of the sewers, drawing concerns about inefficiencies from staff in both Bureaus. While the Bureaus update performance targets annually, the substance of the agreement has not changed," the audit said.

If the partnership continues, the audit made several recommendations. To help meet maintenance targets, both bureaus should develop and implement alternatives to use staffing and vehicles to their full budgeted potential. The transportation bureau should properly document materials taken by crews, increase inventory safeguards for sewer lining materials, and enforce existing procedures. The environmental services bureau should review and approve billings for any inventory discrepancies.

Both bureaus generally agreed with the recommendations in a response letter.

The full audit can be found here.

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