The Dalles City Council took another step Monday toward enacting a series of 3.44 percent sewer rate increases to cover the cost of upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant.
Newly elected councilor Linda Miller cast the sole dissenting vote against having staff prepare a resolution that authorizes the $1.45 per month additional charge. If approved, sewer bills will go up by that amount each year, starting March 1, 2013, and continuing through March 1, 2022.
“I’ve lived in more than one area where rate payers — taxpayers — have to sell their homes because they can’t afford the utility bills,” said Miller, who had taken her oath of office only minutes earlier. “What’s going to happen to homeowners on fixed incomes?”
Miller won the Position 4 seat previously held by Brian Ahier in the Nov. 6 election and will serve a four-year term.
Her comments were echoed by the four people who testified against the rate increases at the Jan. 14 hearing; two of whom questioned the population counts given by a consultant to justify the improvements.
Carollo Engineers, a firm based in Portland, was paid $395,000 to
develop a hydraulic model for an analysis of the collection system and to monitor wastewater flows and project growth needs for 20 years.
The company estimates the population served by the plant will increase to 20,479 in 2022 and 23,203 by 2030. Those figures also include people living just outside the city limits on properties that could one day be annexed. The population projections are based on the recent growth rate of 1.6 percent that is anticipated to increase slightly to 1.9 percent and then drop to 1.3 percent through 2030.
“We don’t have anything for people to come here for; we don’t have the economy,” said resident Randy Cole. “We are a hurting community – we really are.”
Rich Williams said he had compared utility rates in The Dalles with Central Point, a city in Jackson County with a population of more than 17,000, and their bills were half of what was paid locally. He said high expenses were more likely to drive people away than attract them.
Williams said he doubted there would much of a population change unless more manufacturing jobs were created somewhere in the gorge. He suggested that the city look into using urban renewal dollars to make improvements to the East First Street treatment plant, which is sited within that taxing district.
Nolan Young, city manager, said that could be done if the council wished but the urban renewal plan would have to be amended first.
John Nelson, also a member of the city planning commission, said costs to accommodate new development, such as the proposed Walmart super center, should be borne by those who stood to gain in profits, not citizens who were already struggling financially because water and sewer rates had doubled in the last 20 years.
“That’s a lot of increases,” he said. “Most people don’t have that percent of increase in their salaries every year.”
No one spoke up in support of the rate increases or wastewater plant improvement project and Robert McNary challenged the city for spending more than $1 million on unneeded property in the late 1990s to expand the facility.
New mayor Steve Lawrence also voiced concerns about the effect of rate increases on local households and indicated an interest in having the council consider using urban renewal dollars for the project. He said funds collected from downtown property owners within the district could be freed up to cover at least some costs for infrastructure upgrades that benefitted them.
However, Lawrence can only vote to break a tie and there was strong agreement among the other four councilors to move forward on the increases recommended by Dave Anderson, public works director.
Councilors Bill Dick, Dan Spatz, Tim McGlothlin and Carolyn Wood voted to have staffers bring back a resolution to the Jan. 28 meeting that, if approved, will set the rate changes in motion.
Anderson told the council that the $17 million project was needed not only to meet growth needs but to replace an aging — some pieces of equipment are 70-years-old — and deficient system. He said the city also had to meet state and federal mandates for treatment of sewer and currently had the minimum pumping capacity for 7.4 million gallons per day when the requirement was 7.7 million. He said the anaerobic digester did not have the capacity to adequately have microorganisms break down biodegradable materials, which was the source of odor that people complained about.
He said that problem could grow worse if the city was forced to store sludge in containers that resembled semi-trailers because the existing tank ran out of room.
Anderson said sewer rates had not been raised for the past two years and inflation was expected to reach 3.2 percent before the rate increases stopped, leaving the city with about 0.2 percent in new revenue.
“What we don’t want to have happen is for an industry to come to town and have to say we don’t have the capacity,” he said.
Young estimated the rate increase in 2013 would generate about $150,000-$170,000 of additional income for work on the plant. The city has already banked $3.2 million to cover the first of three phases of work.
The improvements will be funded by the issuance of revenue bonds in 2014, 2017 and 2020 and repaid over 20 years not only by rate increases but possibly by higher system development charges.
Although a public hearing on increases to the development charges was planned for Jan. 28, Anderson said the city learned there had to be a 90-day notice to the public about the potential change so that hearing will take place in late winter or early spring.