Long showers, green lawns, freshly laundered clothes—these are the luxuries that come with affordable water and sewer rates. But what if those rates weren't so affordable, or if you could save money by using less?
In a work session tonight, members of the Budget Committee and City Council discussed possible water and sewer rate increases to cover the cost of pending infrastructure improvements, such as the membrane filtration plant.
Up for consideration were a variety of options ranging from 4.2 to 9 percent for sewer and 3.8 to 5 percent for water, to go into effect July 1. The highest rate increase would lead to a combined increase, on average, of $5.38.
A higher initial rate increase would allow annual rate increases to return to inflationary levels sooner, resulting in a lower overall payment by customers over a ten year period. Lower initial increases would mean keeping that more modest (but still higher than inflation) rate for longer.
According to Budget and Financial Planning Manager Sharon Wojda, with the highest level of increase, these utilities would comprise 2.1 percent of median income, which is significantly lower than the Environmental Protection Agency's affordability guideline of 4.5 percent.
Still, for the 22 percent of the city's customers making less than $25,000 annually, the current rates are already approaching the EPA guideline. Wojda pointed out that there are limited assistance programs available for customers who are struggling to pay their water/sewer bills.
Councilor Doug King expressed concerns about the inconsistency historical in rate increases and said he prefers an increase of 6.5 percent (the middle of the three options presented) because it is more similar to past increases. He added that residents want something predictable.
City Manager Eric King explained that while residents benefit from the funding of these infrastructure project, those perks don't always seem tangible.
"Because utilities are below the ground, people don’t see them," King said. "We can’t do enough to educate the community and connect theses rate to the work that is being done, [which is] creating a backbone for our community, that’s sustainable, to grow and thrive."
The real question is: Do we bite the bullet and accept higher rate hikes up front and potentially pay less in the end, or do we draw it out, and accept a higher bill for longer?
Nikki Roemmer, regional director for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, proposed a third option.
"I've been here 17 years, I’ve felt that 86 percent increase. I’m still feeling the increase," Roemmer said during the visitor's comment section. "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, 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.
Council moved forward with the higher rates, which come up for public comment and a vote at its next meeting on June 18.
In other Council news:
• Council recognized departing Finance Director Sonia Andrews for her service.
• The Arts, Beautification, and Culture Commission granted its annual ABC award to Cascade A&E founder/publisher Pamela Hulse Andrews, Tower Theatre Executive Director Ray Solley, Visit Bend Director Doug LaPlaca, and COCC art professor Bill Hoppe.
• Council approved an amendment to Visit Bend’s bylaws to increase its board from eight to ten members and to allow past members to renew eligibility after a two-year hiatus. It also approved revisions to the Independent Contractor Agreement between Visit Bend and the City of Bend to reflect the increase to the transient room tax rate from 9 percent to 10.4 percent.
• Council voted in favor of moving forward with the second phase of improvements to Reed Market Road, from 3rd Street to Newberry Street. The eastern portion, from Newberry Street to 27th Street is scheduled to be reopened on June 6.