By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Water rates on rise in Willamina

City Recorder Debbie Bernard said Bartlett referred to it as a “friends and family plan.” And she said it became clear that would have to change.

“I really don’t know why it happened,” Bartlett said of the sweetheart rate structure. “There have been staff changes and council changes. Contracts were not followed very closely.”

The city contracted with Bartlett to complete a financial plan, rate analysis and SDC update for its water system. He responed with a comprehensive 32-page report, which Bernard embraced.

“This will afford us a fair system going forward so we can improve our infrastructure,” Bernard said. “It will allow us to apply for grants. We got the rate study done, so it behooves us to take that advice and move forward.”

The city council concurs. So effective with the June 16 to July 15 billing period, the city will begin billing residential and business users based on supply line size and actual metered usage, measured in increments of 100 cubic feet — about 750 gallons.

A single family dwelling served with a five-eighth- or three-quarter-inch line will be charged a base rate of $23.93 a month, plus $2.87 per 100 cubic feet of consumption. At present, the metered rate is only $1.10.

Structures served by larger lines — they range up all the way to eight inches in diameter — will be assessed proportionately more. The city is also bumping sewer rates 5 percent, effective with the same billing period.

About half of the city’s residential customers use less than 500 cubic feet of water a month, and they are effectively getting a pass. But the city’s higher-volume residential customers, and its commercial and industrial customers, are facing big increases.

Under the new structure, the customer consuming 500 cubic feet would be paying $38.28, down from $39.30. However, a customer using 1,500 cubic feet would be paying $66.98, up from $47.55.

Needless to say, the city and the report are pushing conservation. Its new rate structure puts a premium oin finding ways to cut usage.

The city’s two customers are Willamina Lumber, a division of Hampton Affiliates, and the Willamina School District.

The new schedule will have Willamina Lumber, served by an eight-inch line, paying $2,167.98 a month plus 86 cents per 100 cubic feet of metered consumption. It will have the school district, served by a six-inch line, paying $478.60 a month plus 86 cents per 100 cubic feet.

And that’s just for starters. In his report, Bartlett is recommending major catch-up increases in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The city reached out to its two big users well in advance, to let them know what was in the offing.

“Hampton was notified several months in advance about this rate change,” Bernard said. “They weren’t happy about it, but we explained why this has to happen.

“We told them the city received a grant to hire a consultant who conducted a water rate study. We got professional advice. A new rate structure has to happen.”

Bernard said the district also got an early warning. She said Carol Haight, deputy clerk for the school district, was provided with a copy of Bartlett’s report in time for the new rate structure to be factored into the district’s 2015-16 budget document.

In the study, Bartlett concluded: “The city’s current water rates are substantially inequitable across all classes of customers. The city’s monthly base rates and usage rates vary by customer class rather than by the amount of water consumed. As a result, the city’s school district ancd its one industry — Willamina Lumber — are being subsidized by the rest of the city’s water customers.”

He also noted the rate structure does nothing to encourage conservation.

“Approximately 90 percent of the annual revenue collected by the city comes from the base rates, and only 10 percent from usage rates,” he explained. “As a result, customers have no effective control over their monthly water bills.”

He went on to say, “The rate structure financially favors large users and penalizes small users. And it discourages conservation and encourages wasteful usage.”

And he noted, “The structure offers no financial incentive to fix water leaks or to turn off sprinklers when the plants have been sufficiently watered.”

This usage pattern increases operating costs and shortens the life of pumping and treatment equipment, which adds to future capital expenditures, Bartlett said.

In the study, he recommends a complete overhaul of the city’s rate structure, following by a series of annual rate increases. He is calling for hikes of 15 percent in January 2016 and 2017, 10 percent in January 2018, and inflation-pegged increases in future years.

“People have to pay their share,” Bernard said. “It has to be fair. There’s no other way to do it.”

No members of the community were present when Bartlet delivered his report and the council accepted it on May 14.

Bernard said the city will be taking various steps to inform residents. She said copies of his report are available and anyone with questions is invited to call at 503-876-2242.

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