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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

We Now Have Respected, Free Sewer and Water Rate Consultants. Some Aren't Happy.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, Jan 8, 2014 at 1:14 PM

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Portland sewer and water bills have been used as a rhetorical tool a lot lately. This morning's city council meeting was no different.

"This is the highest bill I get," Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon (CUB), told council, wielding an envelope. "That wasn't always the case."

Jenks' organization has worked for decades scrutinizing private utility rates around the state, and claims to have argued its way to $5.3 billion in savings in that time. Now, over objections from the City Club of Portland and derision from critics, CUB will for the first time scrutinize Portland's sewer and water spending.

City Council voted 4-0 (with Commissioner Amanda Fritz absent) to approve the five year agreement, with some commissioners saying the move should have been made long ago. At no public cost, CUB says, it can drill deeply into public utility expenditures and highlight potential savings, looming missteps and frivolous purchases critics charge have become endemic in the bureaus.

"We do our homework," Jenks said. "We're gonna do a good, serious analysis. We'll have thousands of customers behind us."

Rather than taking public money, CUB plans to generate funds for a new position by including flyers in Portlander's utility bills informing them of the service. If three or four percent of ratepayers decide they support the effort, CUB Organizing Director Jeff Bissonnette tells the Mercury, the organization should be able to raise the $75,000-100,000 per year needed to carry out the work.

The council vote came despite pleas from a 14-person City Club committee that's been studying sewer and water rates over the past months. Chris Liddle, the committee's chair, asked commissioner to withhold the vote for a week or two, so the group could hurriedly release its findings.

"What you'll find is a series of recommendations that's more comprehensive than what you have before you today," Liddle said.

But while commissioners appeared to take the request seriously, none thought the CUB agreement would tarnish any eventual findings, which had been expected in March.

"CUB is a respected organization that has been invited to do their work here," Mayor Charlie Hales told Liddle. "That may not be all the reform you would recommend, but is it in any way going to stymie the reform you recommend?"

The agreement—first suggested by Commissioner Steve Novick, who brought the idea to Commissioner Nick Fish—comes at a time of perhaps-unprecedented scrutiny on Portland's public utilities, prompting the Oregonian editorial board to suggest yesterday the effort looks like posturing.

A group backed by industrial ratepayers has launched a campaign to put a measure before voters in May to snatch the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services away from city council, giving them over to a new seven-member board. That group, the Portland Public Water District, it will submit the nearly 30,000 valid signatures needed in coming weeks. They're due by the 21st.

Novick couldn't resist taking a shot at the effort in this morning's meeting.

"There's a corporate alliance out there that's pushing the idea that if you're concerned about your water and sewer rates you should turn over control of the Water Bureau and BES to a group of as-yet unidentified and amateur politicians," Novick said. "If there's anyone you can trust, it's an unidentified and amateur politician."

Kent Craford, the chief petitioner behind the water district, has dismissed CUB's influence. He said the group's done good work in the past, but its involvement in the water and sewer bureaus amounts to "rearranging the deck chairs." Much of that criticism is based on the fact a former CUB staffer also served on the Portland Utility Review Board, which makes recommendations about the city's water and sewer rates Craford has frequently taken exception to.

"They've served on the PURB for years," Craford said. "This isn't a fresh set of eyes."

But Bissonnette says the former staff member, Gordon Feighner, served on the board in a private capacity, not as a representative of CUB.

For his part, Bissonnette tells the Mercury he can't yet comment on the viability of Craford's proposal.

"Because we have now a direst role we'll do some in-depth analysis," he said. "If we decided that residential customers' interests are strongly effected,either good or bad," the group will release that finding.

Tangential, but related: This morning's hearing served as an unveiling for a new challenger for Commissioner Nick Fish's council seat. A woman named Sharon Maxwell, a local contractor who champions her North Portland roots, announced she'd filed to run.

Clearly, she wasn't a fan of Fish's proposal.

"This current effort has been called hasty and rushed," Maxwell said. "I say we wait for the May 20th ballot on the public utility district before suggesting any changes."

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