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  • 26 Nov 2014

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Both sides claim victory in water, sewer rate ruling

Both sides are claiming victory in a Multnomah County judge's ruling in a case over alleged misspending by the Portland water and sewer bureaus.

Judge Stephen Bushong found the city had misspent ratepayer money in two of the four test examples in the suit, but not in the other two.

An attorney for ratepayers who had brought the suit said that was enough to proceed on a larger number of other spending decisions.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling that, unlike what the city has advocated, there must be a reasonable relationship between spending and water and sewer functions," said John DiLorenzo, an attorney representing a number of water and sewer ratepayers who filed the suit. "Accordingly, our lawsuit will now focus on at least 25 additional categories of spending which were not reasonably related to water and sewer projects. These categories will include $52 million which the sewer fund has advanced on behalf of other bureaus for Portland Harbor studies.”

City officials claimed the ruling upheld City Council decisions on how ratepayer money could be spent, however.

“I am pleased the court rejected this blatant attack on the city’s environmental stewardship,” Commissioner Nick Fish said. “The two items, which the Judge ruled were outside the bounds of the charter, are yesterday’s news and have already been fixed.”

The ruling could help influence the outcome of a May 20 Primary Election ballot measure to create an independently elected Portland Public Water District to oversee the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, which manage the city's sewer system and stormwater management programs.

Bushong ruled the city should not have spent ratepayer money on the former public campaign finance program and public toilets known as the Portland loos. But he ruled the city was justified in spending ratepayer money to help acquire an undeveloped portion of the Riverview Cemetery and to pay TriMet to replace underground pipes as part of a transit construction project.

Kent Craford, a former lobbyist for large water users and co-petitioner of the ballot measure, says that is why it should be approved.

"We applaud the court's decision to curb City Hall's most egregious abuses of water and sewer funds. But by upholding the city's acquisition of a park and subsidization of light rail using sewer funds, we fear the court has opened a Pandora's box that will lead to higher sewer rates in the future to fund more projects with only a tangential relationship to the sewer system. The only way to close the lid on that Pandora's box is to approve the Portland Public Water District and its stricter limitations on spending water and sewer funds on projects not primarily related to the water and sewer systems," says Craford.

City Attorney Tracy Reeve said the ruling shows the council is managing ratepayer funds wisely, however.

“We are pleased that the court has adopted our interpretation of the charter and recognized the Portland City Council’s authority to decide how best to manage the city’s sewer, storm water, and water systems,” says Reeve.

DiLorenzo has already filed an amended complaint to continue with numerous unresolved spending decisions cited in the suit.