Trommlitz: Some county residents unfairly charged city stormwater fee
At 9 a.m. June 29, I called the city of St. Helens Water Department to ask a question — Why are we who are outside the city limits and in the county being charged $11.71? This is the first time it has appeared on our bills. I was told by Dawn Richardson that our properties were surveyed and showed that we were having an effect on the city's storm drain system. Not true! My water goes into a dry well and I contribute nothing to their system. I want their authorization to legally bill me for this water. They need to do a test and show that this water enters their storm drain system. I was told I would receive an email to explain. I called two hours later at 11 a.m. because I hadn't received the email.
Dawn told me that Matt Brown and Sue Nelson were composing a letter to explain. I said the letter was late by months and also could have been inserted with the April bill that we were sent. They also didn't bother to notify anyone in the county that were buying city of St. Helens water of their action for the added fee to the water bill. This action goes back to December 2019. On Dec. 4, ordinance action was read and entered, then on Dec. 18 made law. No notice was given of the proposed fee, so at the very least, people could have voiced their concern for the proposed action of adding this fee.
The 11:33 email states: The attached ordinance regarding storm fees. The City of St. Helens City Council adopted a revision to the Municipal Code and revised the fee structure. This resulted in many customers (that's us in the county) who did not previously get charged a storm utility fee to begin receiving this fee after the code changes. The purpose of the changes in the code language was to better capture the effects that every customer has on the storm system city-wide. In essence, just because a specific site has a site-specific storm drain system, the customer and employees of that entity still effect the storm system city-wide because they have to drive on city roads to get to their property.
I called for an explanation and (they said it) didn't matter that I had a dry well, it's because I drive on city streets more often. That was interesting because I am retired, as are my five adjoining property owners. So this isn't about water, it's really a road usage fee. We pay gas taxes, which get returned to counties and cities. Now the real discrimination follows — adjoining county residents who don't buy water from the city do not pay any such road usage fee. Those residents buying water from McNulty Water who could be your neighbor won't be receiving this bill. They also are county residents using city streets. Yet because we buy water from the city, we are now expected to pay $11.71 per month. It's fairly easy to understand why it's a water fee and not a road system fee.
When I asked Sue Nelson about our paying double the city water rate, no good answer was received. Because we are expected to be included to share what the city of St. Helens believes to be fairly justified, it only seems reasonable that our water usage rate should have been renegotiated to fairly reflect our inclusion by this new city ordinance. I note also that the city didn't have to lay any special piping or excavation for me or my neighbors because the reservoir is across the from my property and the distribution lines furnishing the city are in the county road right away in front of me.
To me, it's clear the city of St. Helens expected some opposition to their code change and chose to avoid this by operating with no transparency. This is the reason the city, I believe, chose to pursue this route of no notice to this group of people that this issue was up for an ordinance code change.
I have been told we are welcome to attend council meeting, but most issues have little bearing on us in the county because of our location. We don't vote on anything and cannot vote out councilors which we disagree with. My concern was the long-term leaking reservoir across the road from me, which was a source of contention, that still is requiring a fix.
So concluding, if you live in the county and buy water from the city of St. Helens, you can now expect to pay for driving city streets. You can understand why there is such distrust of government. The city decision-makers determine issues, but it was Dawn and Jamie who were receiving the public's wrath.
The city had the opportunity to have shown some transparency in December when they mailed out December's billing.
It's no wonder that a lot of people have little trust in government. I didn't like Steve Topaz's "yes" vote on the stormwater fee, yet he deserves a certain amount praise because Steve Topaz has been the councilor that has shown a quality of conviction by exposing the council's proposed agendas. While some might be legal, it just isn't right. I'm thankful that as citizens, we have a Nancy Whitney and Steve Topaz, who reveal the direction and decisions that the city of St. Helens keeps proposing, by their paying attention to the details and writing letters being published by The Spotlight newspaper. They have been trying to alert us to facts often obscured.
I know the city has received a great many complaints on the stormwater fee because all my neighbors called with protests. Our complaints are easily dismissed by the councilors because they are somewhat isolated from the anger because the water department gets the angry phone calls, and when we send emails to councilors, they can just hit the delete button.
Ron Trommlitz, St. Helens
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