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Citizen Utility Board asked to review water and sewer bureaus

Commissioners Nick Fish and Steve Novick are proposing a partnership between the city and the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon to analyze the operations and budgeting of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services.

The CUB is a public benefit non-profit organization in 1984 by a citizens’ ballot initiative to represent the interests of residential utility customers. Fish says having it review and make recommendations on the two bureaus will increase transparency and improve the decsion-making process.

“CUB has a 30-year track record of successful advocacy for residential ratepayers across Oregon — older adults on fixed incomes, hardworking parents, young families just starting out. This groundbreaking partnership will be good for the City and good for Portland ratepayers,” says Fish.

The proposal comes during a petition drive to place a measure on the may 2014 Primary Election ballot to transfer control of the two bureau from the council to an independently elected board. It is largely a reaction to increasing utility bills, reports of pet project funded by water and sewer funds, and the council's reluctant willingeness to replace the open reservoirs in Mt. Tabor and Washington parks with underground storage tanks to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

Fish says the proposal is not in reaction to the petition drive. He says the idea was first proposed when Novick was temporarily in charge of the water bureau in January 2013, well before the petition drive was announced.

Petition support Kent Craford dismisses the proposal as little more than another advisory committee the council can ignore, like the existing Public Utility Review Board and the budget advisory committees for the two bureaus.

"Well, step one is admitting you have a problem, so its encouraging to see Commissioner Fish come that far. Beyond that, I don't I know what he's trying to accomplish here. Another advisory panel? Give me a break," says Craford, a lobbyist and the initiative's chief co-petitioner.

Fish says he has been in discussions with CUB representatives since shortly after Mayor Charlie Hales assigned him the bureaus in mid-2012. Although the CUB was created to represent customers of private utilities like PGE and NW Natural, he believes it can serve the same purpose for public utilities like the water bureau and the environmental services bureau, which operate the city sewer system and stormwater management programs.

“We are gratified at the opportunity to take on this new role on behalf of Portland’s water and sewer customers,” says Bob Jenks, CUB’s executive director. “We look forward to working with the staff of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services to explore ways to serve customers better and keep rates under control over the long-term.”

According to Fish, CUB has agreed to hire a staff person dedicated to the two city bureaus. CUB will seek members through inserts in joint water and environmental services bills.

“Ratepayers can fund their own advocacy if given a chance to do that. That way, Portlanders can be assured that we are completely independent and working for their best interests," says Jenks

Fish says that under the partnership, CUB will conduct extensive community outreach to key stakeholders, including neighborhood groups, commercial and large industrial customers, civic groups, and environmental organizations to identify issues that are important to ratepayers. CUB will then develop recommendations concerning the bureaus’ budgets, capital planning, and longer-term policy questions.

The council will consider a recommendation with the proposal next Wednesday. Fish says he expect it to pass.

The City of Portland provides water, sewer and stormwater services to 180,000 customer accounts, almost 90 percent of which are residential.

In its three decades of service, CUB has been a leader in ratepayer advocacy, achieving an estimated savings of $5.8 billion for residential ratepayers across Oregon.

"CUB is well respected by both utilities and advocacy organizations," says Fish.

Novick hails the agreement as an important step forward.

“CUB has spent years developing a reputation as a tough but fair and thoughtful critic of the rates and spending decisions of the private utilities. Portlanders and the City can only benefit from having CUB apply that kind of tough, fair and thoughtful analysis to the City utilities,” Novick says.