Tapped: Concerns bubble up over rate increases

By Erin Rook, Source Weekly

For those receiving City of Bend services, water and sewer rates are about to go up. Just how high will be determined at the upcoming City Council meeting on June 18.

The reason for the controversial increase are somewhat invisible infrastructure improvements, such as the Environmental Protection Agency-mandated membrane filtration system. City Manager Eric King explained that while residents benefit from the funding of these projects, those perks don’t always seem tangible.

“Because utilities are below the ground, people don’t see them,” King said at the June 4 meeting. “We can’t do enough to educate the community and connect these rates to the work that is being done, [which is] creating a backbone for our community that’s sustainable, to grow and thrive.”

A variety of options ranging from a 4.2 to 9 percent increase for sewer and a 3.8 to 5 percent increase for water are up for discussion—and, ultimately, a vote this Wednesday. The highest rate increase would lead to a combined increase that, on average, would be about the same price as one burrito per household—about $5.38 per month. That likely increase would go into effect July 1.

But while no one seems to dispute the need for additional revenue, some are concerned about how those rate hikes will impact customers who may already be struggling to pay their bills—and about the fairness of the overall billing structure.

Budget and Financial Planning Manager Sharon Wojda told City Council that the uptick should have a marginal impact on those at or above the median income level; even with the highest level of increase, these utilities would comprise a mere 2 percent of their earnings—a number significantly lower than the EPA’s affordability guideline of 4.5 percent.

Still, for the one-fifth of the city’s customers making less than $25,000 annually, the current rates are already approaching that limit, Wojda said. The city offers two assistance programs—one gives a 50 percent discount on sewer to income-eligible senior or disabled customers; the other gives low-income customers a one-time voucher for $150 toward their water bill. Even so, options for those struggling to pay their water and sewer bills are limited. Moreover, using less water to lower bills only goes so far with the existing rate structure. City of Bend water customers currently pay a flat fee for the first 400 cubic feet of water used—that’s about 100 gallons a day—and a usage fee for anything above that. Those who use close to, or less than, that base amount have no control over their water costs. And with rates steadily increasing, customers have to dig ever deeper into their pockets to cover basic living expenses.

“I’ve been here 17 years,” said Nikki Roemmer, regional director for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, during the Council meeting. She continued, “I’ve felt that 86 percent increase. I’m still feeling the increase. I heard increase, increase, increase. What I didn’t hear was decrease.”

Roemmer said she would like to see a rate structure tied to customer usage, which she argued would encourage conservation by providing incentives, and could reduce rates for many residents and potentially prevent the need for costly future infrastructure improvements.

“Conservation is a strong value in our community,” she said, adding that the rate structure should encourage that. The close proximity of the Two Bulls Fire to Bend’s Bridge Creek watershed makes crystal clear the importance of using water efficiently.

King said that while it’s too soon to say what will come of the Council’s rate restructuring process, this may be an opportunity to institutionalize such incentives—and that there’s a good chance the new structure will prioritize conservation.

“I think that’s a given,” King told the Source. “It’s definitely moving in that direction.”

He added that City Council reduced the base quantity from 600 to 400 cubic feet four years ago with intention to go to zero, but other issues came up, and that process was put on hold.

But the city is ready to move forward: Council will take up the rate structure again this summer, working with committees to run through a variety of scenarios and see how they hold up to their values in August. In September and October, they will loop in the public through ratepayer focus groups. King said the goal is to implement the new structure as early as December.

The values that city council will consider include “affordability, equity, conservation, efficient use of water, and revenue stabilization,” King said. “It needs to be simple to understand and administer, so people can see where their rate dollars are going.”

The biggest challenges, he said, will be prioritizing those values and determining an appropriate fixed cost to cover infrastructure.

City of Bend residential water customers (using a 3/4-inch meter) currently pay $21.29 for the first 400 cubic feet of water and $1.60 for each addition 100 cubic feet. They are also charged a flat rate of $44.37 for sewer and $4 for storm water. That means that no matter how little a household uses, the monthly water/sewer bill will be nearly $70. If the Council votes to approve the highest percent increases, the minimum bill would be about $75.

By contrast, in Salem, municipal water customers pay a small bi-monthly service fee of $2.71 and a usage charge of $1.92 per 100 cubic feet. So, in Salem, 400 cubic feet of water costs about $9 per month, as compared to $21.29 in Bend.

“So not only is rent up and forcing people, families out of their homes, we now have to figure out how to keep our water and lights on?” asked local resident Stephanie Slade. “This is stupid. Asinine.”