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Water, sewer rates on the rise in 2015

Tigard leaders will decide next month on additional fees.

The Tigard City Council is considering a plan that could see your water bill go up significantly in the next few years.

On Tuesday, councilors heard a plan to implement a series of rate increases to both water and sewer rates in order to pay for capital improvement projects.

Raising rates is a sore subject among Tigard water customers, who have seen a dramatic increase in water rates over the past five years.

Water rates in Tigard have been steadily climbing, since the city agreed to pay for its share of the Lake Oswego Tigard Water Partnership through customers' monthly water bills.

In 2010, the average ratepayer in Tigard paid about $29 a month for water. That number has risen in the past four years to $41.51.

City planners have said the partnership with Lake Oswego is Tigard’s best option to have control over its water after decades of buying water wholesale from the city of Portland.

The city had planned to raise rates 4.3 percent starting in January — about $2 for the average rate payer — but plans now call for that rate to jump as high as 10.5 percent, after the city agreed to purchase a larger share of the project last year.

A 10.5 percent rate increase means the average homeowner will pay about $4.80 more each a month for a total of $46.31.

The city needs to raise rates in order to pay for the project, said Tigard Mayor John L. Cook. It’s just a matter of how much.

“Hitting them with an almost 11 percent increase, after raising their rates five years in a row, that’s a big deal,” Cook said.

The change would impact everyone in the Tigard Water Service Area, which includes most of Tigard, as well as King City, Durham and Bull Mountain.

The city has the option to enact a smoother rate increase over the next five years to pay for the plan — about $2.40 a month over the next three years rather than the $4.80 — but Cook said the city should bite the bullet and get the rate increase over with.

“I like a flat model all the way across, but if you look at the number of complaint calls we’ve gotten about this from customers (over the last four years), it hasn’t been that much," he said. "A lot of people moved into the city and didn’t know we had this five-year plan. We have had double-digit increases for years, and only a small number of people have called.”

John Goodrich, Tigard’s interim assistant public works director, worked for years as the director of its utilities, and said he takes about 15 to 20 complaint calls about water rates every year.

That’s a relatively small number, compared to the tens of thousands of people the city provides water to, Cook said.

“If we did one more year of a double-digit increase, I think we would get that same amount of calls,” Cook said.

The City Council is expected to vote on water rate increases at its Dec. 9 board meeting.

Sewer rates also rise

The city is also considering a new sewer tax on residents that could charge people as much as $1.95 a month for the privilege of flushing their toilet.

Sewer rates in Washington County are set by Clean Water Services — a water resources management utility that operates several wastewater treatment centers and maintains water quality in the Tualatin River.

The way the system works today, for every dollar a customer spends on sewer service in its utility bill, about 84 cents goes to Clean Water Services. The remaining 16 cents are given to the city.

But city officials say the city doesn’t bring in enough money from that arrangement to pay for its day-to-day operations and large capital projects, such as adding sewer lines to newly constructed neighborhoods.

For years, the city has drawn from reserves in order to pay the difference, but City Councilor Marland Henderson said that can’t be the city’s plan forever.

City officials estimate the city is facing a $5.1 million deficit over the next five years.

“This isn’t the sustainable answer to this question,” Henderson said. “We are misusing a half-million dollars every year.”

To fix that, the city is planning to charge a monthly tax on sewer customers of $1.95 for an average ratepayer, in addition to current sewer rates charged by Clean Water Services.

It also plans to charge Clean Water Services a yearly fee, similar to the way it treats utilities such as Portland General Electric or cable companies.

“To me, it seems like a no-brainer,” said City Councilor Gretchen Buehner. “We can’t let the sewer system go below a reasonable level.”

There is precedent for doing this. Tigard is the only city inside Clean Water Services’ purview that hasn’t implemented its own sewer rates on top of existing ones.

Councilor Jason Snider said that shows something is wrong with the system.

“That says to me that no other city is able to fund its infrastructure with what they get from (Clean Water Services), either,” Snider said.

But not every utility agrees that's the right thing to do.

In Clackamas County, a legal battle is underway between Oregon City and the county after it charged a similar fee against a county sewer district and two dozen other utilities last year.

If approved, a sewer rate on taxpayers won’t go into effect until late 2015.

“The longer we delay on implementing a local fee, the more we draw down those reserves,” LaFrance said.

If Clean Water Services doesn't agree to pay the charge, Tigard's Finance Director Toby LaFrance said the city will have to consider implementing an even higher fee on customers.

“The sewer fund had a healthy fund balance, once,” he said. “It is slowly being depleted. It will go negative within a couple fiscal years.”

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