Big crowd protests water, sewer fees

Senior citizens, families and schools tell the City Council, which plans more meetings, it's time for a break

Thursday, January 20, 2000

By Kara Briggs of The Oregonian staff

Alex Wiese held his 3-year-old daughter in his arms and shushed his other three children while listening to city officials explain why his water and sewer bill is so high.

Wiese was one of almost 300 people who filled Portland City Hall on Wednesday night to call for lowering the city's water and sewer rates. The majority also called for eliminating the storm-water fee for city residents whose storm water doesn't drain into the sewer system.

"The rates are high for a family trying to raise four children," Wiese said. "We have to call every third month and ask for deferred payment because we can't afford our water bill. We don't have to do that with any other utility."

Portland City Commissioners Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman have proposed a variety of plans to lower water and sewer bills for Portland residents. Some proposals would lower residential rates and increase business rates.

The council has scheduled a vote on how to change the rates in early April. Before then, the city will have eight community meetings to talk over the options with ratepayers.

Wednesday night's crowd, mostly senior citizens who live east of 82nd Avenue, spilled out of the council chambers and into two overflow rooms. It was one of the largest turnouts for a council meeting in years, said Cay Kershner , city recorder.

Another 1,600 people sent postcards to the council complaining about the storm-water fee and water rates.

School district hurt, too
Patrick Wolfe, a manager in the Portland Public Schools, said the district's sewer and water bill has risen in each of the past three years, even though the district's water use dropped 18 percent.

"We are now paying as much in our sewer bill as we spend to keep our children warm," Wolfe said.

Sten and Saltzman say they want the changes to link the rate to how much water a customer uses. Now the water rate is buried under a service charge, which residents say can be as high as one-third of their bill. The commissioners would like to eliminate the charge.

Under one option, lower residential bills would come largely at the expense of the city's big industrial and commercial customers, some of whose bills would increase. The average residential ratepayer, whose bill is now $487 a year, could see a rate drop of 20 percent, or about $100 a year.

A less dramatic option would partly cut the service charge and cut the bill by 11 percent a year, or $54. It would not add to the bills of big businesses.

Kathleen Curtis Dotten, representing the Oregon Metals Industry Council, asked the council to do an economic analysis before charging businesses more. She noted that the Oregon Steel Mills' bill under the more drastic plan would grow from $8,000 a year to $70,000.

Sten said Dotten's argument lost some of its punch in light of the city's $5 million abatement of the Oregon Steel Mills' property taxes.

Bills strain senior citizens
Dorothy Gage of Southwest Portland said senior citizens who live on Social Security cannot keep paying the increasing water and sewer rates.

"After food, rent and medicine, there is little room for anything else," she said. "Will the city start turning off seniors' water?"

Although cutting the service charge would save residential ratepayers more money, most people were better versed in the inequity of the $8.78 a month storm-water fee for properties that don't use the city system.

Sten and Saltzman propose reducing the fee for ratepayers who have dry wells by 20 percent, though residents would like a total exemption. Any change would shift costs to other neighborhoods, city staff said.

"We are willing to pay our fair share," said Howard Horner, the retired David Douglas School District superintendent, who called the fee highway robbery. "The question is, what is fair?"