Ashland water bills could go up to fund watershed protection

A typical Ashland water bill payer would see about a $16 increase per year to fund ongoing maintenance of Ashland’s watershed after the City Council decided on a 5-1 vote Tuesday to pursue a rate increase based on meter size.

That approach was preferred by most councilors to a property tax increase that would have amounted to about $27 per year for a typical property owner.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency (AFR) project began in 2010 as an effort to reduce buildup of undergrowth and debris that could fuel a wildfire in the Ashland watershed. Funding thus far has come from grants and a budget surplus, but reduced water usage and revenues due to the ongoing drought have largely eliminated surplus funds.

Roughly $10 million dollars has been spent so far on the project, much of it from outside sources, to remove debris and conduct controlled burns to protect the watershed from a catastrophic fire. The city proposed some thinning of timber in the watershed as a fire prevention measure which, according to Mayor John Stromberg, attracted the partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, in large part due to the city’s willingness to commit funding to the project — to have “some skin in the game.” Other partners include the Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project.

With the current budget expiring at the end of June, the city must identify a funding source for an additional $175,000 annually to continue work on the project. That’s enough to maintain about 10 percent of the 7,300 acres covered by the project, meaning the entire area would be maintained every 10 years.

Councilman Rich Rosenthal said the money spent on the AFR project was fundamentally different than other expenses.

“This is a very important issue,” he said, “and it’s not an expense, but an investment. You could argue these are all expenses, but we received $3.16 million dollars from public and private partners. That’s an eighteen-to-one return on the city’s $175,000 dollar investment. I’ll take that return on any investment. This is an insurance policy and a smart investment.”

City Administrator Dave Kanner says the decision to tie funding for the AFR project to water rates is logical. One of the primary concerns in the event of a fire in the watershed is that erosion would contaminate the water supply and fill in the Reeder Reservoir, the source of most of the drinking water in Ashland. Though protecting wildlife and property is part of the equation, the long-term impact on the city of losing its water supply is considered the most significant risk to the community.

Councilwoman Pam Marsh noted that while she did not like raising fees, she felt the Council would be remiss in its duties if it did not secure continued funding for the project.

“It would be criminal to waste the millions of dollars we have spent so far and that we hope to receive in the future. Our watershed is an ongoing issue and provides our water. It needs to be funded,” she said.

The council directed Kanner to pursue a funding option based on a charge tied to water meter size, so larger water users would pay more, rather than a flat fee where all users would pay the same amount regardless of consumption.

The vast majority of water customers in the service area use a three-quarter inch water meter to supply their homes and businesses. Staff used the capacity of the three-quarter inch line as a base rate, increasing the surcharge proportionately with the capacity of larger meters.

The council had outlined six critical areas to be considered when selecting a funding option for the AFR project. The first was that the funding stream be fixed and reliable, rather than tied to water consumption, which fluctuates. Transparency was another concern, which was addressed by clearly labeling the surcharge on water bills. Equitability and progressivity were addressed by charging all water users the surcharge and by tying the rate to meter size.

The council also had stated they wished the funding source to be logically associated with the project, which was accomplished by funding the project through water fees, as AFR is intended to protect the water supply. The council directed staff to make the funding specific to the AFR project, and funds collected through the surcharge would be designated for the project rather than as an appropriation from the general fund.

The directive to draft a proposal passed with a vote of 4-1 with Councilwoman Carol Voisin dissenting. Voisin said she would like to further examine a property tax levy because she felt property owners were better able to absorb additional costs than those who could not afford to buy a home. She also noted that the council had just approved an overall seven percent increase in utility fees during the meeting and that she felt an additional fee was not warranted. She also said she felt a property tax levy created a stronger link between the funding source and the expense as fire prevention ensures the value safety of real estate.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland resident and freelance writer.

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