Rates rise for water and sewer

A narrow Ashland City Council majority voted to raise water rates by 8 percent and sewage rates by 9 percent.

People who use a high amount of water in the summer will pay even more, based on the council's Tuesday night decision.

The 8 percent water rate increase will cost the average household another $2.90 per month, while the average sewer bill increase will be $2.02 a month, for a total of $4.92, City Finance Director Lee Tuneberg said.

"We do realize that it's a tough time to be raising rates," he said.

Ashland already has three tiers of water rates based on usage. It will now have a fourth tier for households that use more than 3,600 cubic feet of water per month. The charge for water used above that amount — which equates to 27,000 gallons per month — will be 30 percent more than for the existing third tier of water use.

Because of their high water use, about 500 out of more than 7,000 water customers will be hit with higher fees that will average $16.75 per month, city staff estimated.

A household of four people that uses a typical amount of water for indoor needs like washing would also have to let a garden hose run at full blast for more than an hour every day to be hit with the higher fees, according to Daily Tidings calculations.

The aim of the higher fees is to limit people's use of treated city drinking water for outdoor irrigation.

Last summer, the city imposed mandatory water curtailment after the city water supply ran low.

There could be allowances for people who irrigate their gardens.

City councilors directed city staff members to create a process for case-by-case reviews of households where people grow food.

However, growing a garden will not give someone a blank check to use huge amounts of water.

City Water Conservation Analyst Robbin Pearce said the city will still encourage efficient irrigation systems and practices such as mulching and composting to reduce water use.

Without extra charges on high water users and other cost-cutting measures like delaying infrastructure projects, city staff would have proposed a 14 percent across-the-board water rate increase, rather than the proposed 8 percent, according to a staff memo to councilors.

Instead of the proposed 9 percent sewer rate increase, sewer rates could have gone up by 40 percent if voters had not renewed the city's 5 percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages in November 2009, the memo said.

The majority of meals tax revenue funds debt incurred for past sewage treatment plant upgrades.

Councilors Russ Silbiger, Kate Jackson and David Chapman voted for the water and sewer bill increases, while Councilors Eric Navickas and Carol Voisin voted against them. Councilor Greg Lemhouse was absent, as was Mayor John Stromberg — although the mayor votes only to break ties.

"I don't like it," Silbiger said of the rate increases, but added that there are no magic solutions to paying for rising water and sewer system costs.

Voisin pointed to a city staff plan to try and refinance the debt on past sewage treatment plant upgrades, which could save up to $135,000 a year in interest payments. She said meals tax revenues may also increase as the economy recovers.

"I'm fearful we're driving the middle class out of Ashland," Voisin said.

Councilors who voted for the rate increases said they weren't willing to gamble that meals tax revenues would go up and that the city would be able to refinance the sewage debt at a lower interest rate.

Part of the money from the increased sewer and water bills will go to pay city workers in a laborers union who previously won a 3.5 percent cost of living raise during labor negotiations. The city is also expecting an 8 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, City Administrator Martha Bennett said.

Before voting, councilors heard from several residents who said their incomes were flat from Social Security payments or their work. The residents said they were opposed to the rate increases.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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