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My View: Water Bureau must stop going with flow

While the media keeps repeating that city Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Charlie Hales have kept the rate increase to under 5 percent, in fact, the City Council has voted to increase water rates by 7 percent effective in July, and 7 percent for the base charge, a charge rarely mentioned and one that should not rise at all except in very rare and clearly defined circumstances.

The Portland Water Bureau has increased the base charge in each of at least the last eight years. Expansionary projects such as the Willamette River pipe should not be undertaken when water demand has declined as it has for 26 years, and wholesale customers like Tigard (and soon Tualatin Valley Water District and others) will be no more. The current six river pipe crossings are more than adequate.

The new Citizens Utility Board hire, Janice Thompson, who works on Portland’s water and Bureau of Environmental Services issues, unfortunately, is at a distinct disadvantage given her lack of direct historical perspective on the many controversial issues (most of which are never reported in the media) involving mismanagement of Portland’s water and sewer bureaus.

She also is limited by her lack of experience overseeing any type of utility. Thus, CUB made no recommendation on this year’s water and sewer rate increases.

It was disappointing that CUB failed to address even the easy issues such as to recommend reducing the high number of managers supervising three or fewer employees. The city’s new Span of Control study revealed that the Water Bureau, with 33 managers supervising three or fewer employees, and Sewer, with 29 such managers, have the highest number of unneeded mid-level managers in the city.

It was revealing that CUB reported on the Water Bureau’s proposal to shift costs from businesses to individuals by using a “cost of service” model, one of the false accusations made by the anti-campaign of the Portland Public Water District reform effort. Why did the Tribune not explain that cost of service means shifting costs?

There have been endless opportunities to cut rates over the years had the mismanagement problems, such as cozy engineering firms and contractors driving the agenda, been addressed. There remain many opportunities for efficiency and cuts.

Cozy engineering firms that backed the anti-campaign, such as CH2M Hill, are still driving the agenda; crony managers remain in place; and lack of transparency, stonewalling public records requests, and ignoring community interests regarding the revision of the EPA LT2 rule, remain as examples of the many mismanagement problems.

Water Bureau staffing escalated under former city Commissioner Randy Leonard and Water Bureau administrator David Shaff over and above the return of customer service, with partial at-the-time reasoning being that the controversial use of cozy consultants would decline if staffing increased. Consultant contracting not only did not decline, it increased dramatically ($9 million to $18 million) with the bloating of PWB staffing hired to work on nonmission projects supported by Leonard and Fish.

Several of Leonard’s Bureau of Development Services staff remain at the PWB.

City Hall always resists independent oversight, as it did in 2011 terminating its Charter Committee before the committee could submit a charter amendment for minimal oversight of the water and sewer utilities.

And they are fighting (appealing Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong’s ruling) the charter limitation that utility spending must be “reasonably related” to water, sewer and stormwater services.

Appointed boards such as the utility Budget Advisory Committee and the Portland Utility Review Board (months without a quorum) historically have not resulted in independence or significant reform. The “blue-ribbon” panel must not be comprised of City Hall insiders or recipients of taxpayer or ratepayer dollars if it is to be taken seriously.

Floy Jones of Southeast Portland was a co-sponsor of Measure 26-156.