Hood River City Council says utility rates going up

Monday’s City Council meeting proved to be like a syllabus of summer work for Hood River City staff, council, and even citizens.

Three efforts will receive heavy attention: increases in sewer and water rates, policy changes relating to affordable housing, and training and preparation for oil trail derailment.

The key points are these:

  • Sewer and water — Rates will go up in 2016 to pay for needed improvements, including replacement of harmful lead water pipes or joints, aged and inefficient clay sewer pipes, and in the fast-growing west part of the city, for increased water pressure necessary for health and fire suppression.
  • Affordable housing — Aug. 29 is the city’s deadline to complete its updated policies pertaining to affordable housing, including zoning and building requirements, and the first opportunity for public input will be July 6, before the Planning Commission. Policy recommendations will be the basis for impending changes to code intended to encourage an increased supply of housing in the city that is affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. Most of the changes will be designed to maximize available land within the Urban Growth Boundary and encourage high-density construction.
  • Oil trains — Fire chief Devon Wells announced that his department participated in a regional training last month on emergency response to spills or fires caused by oil train derailment, and another Northwest regional training is planned in association with the federal Environmental Protection Agency sometime this fall in Bonneville; the training will table-top and in-water containment boom drills.

In addition, a June 10 shareholders meeting of local agencies and property owners will take place on June 10 and include White Salmon Fire Department, which has had training in dealing with flammable Bakken crude oil.

Regarding utility fee increases, city planner Stoner Bell and consultant Ray Bartlett, along with public works director Mark Lago, presented a lengthy and detailed report on the state of sewer and water facilities, which will need a total of $12 million to $14 million in repair and upgrade projects over a five-year period.

“Improvements are up for discussion, but these are the ones we feel need to be done,” said city manager Steve Wheeler.

Bartlett and Bell identified $43.7 million in potential water projects, with $7 to $9 million to be dealt with in the five year-plan and in sewer, the figures are $29 million and about $5 million.

Water rates were last increased in 2012, up 15 percent from $26.72 per month for typical residences to the current $32.30. Bartlett said rates would likely need to go up another 15 percent next year for both sewer and water, and about five percent annually for the next four years, to pay for projects under the five-year plan.

For sewer, rates were set lowered in 2013 by 15 percent, to $41.75 in 2013, down from the $48 approved by council in 2010.

Bartlett urged the council to consider doing away with the residential 5,000 gallon monthly base amount and decreasing it gradually to as low as 1,000 to encourage conservation and reward those who use less water.

This summer council will be discussing the water and projects to be done, and the resulting increase in fees as well as looking at other funding sources such as grants, loans or bonds. Bartlett also suggested the city look at raising system development charges (SDCs) for new construction, 33 to 43 percent, to help pay for projects.

Decisions on projects will flow into an updated Comprehensive Plan (the city’s first since 2001) and then go through a public process before the council decides on changes in rates.

Bell said that many water projects were put on hold in the past five years as the city completed the $10 million mainline replacement in 2010-13, done with city funds and state grant money.

“That project absolutely needed to be done and everything else got put on hold,” Bell said.

Critical issues come down to three:

  • Lead pipes and joints that leach into the water supply;
  • Clay pipes carrying sewage that are in need of repair or are at the end of their intended life, and many are used in high-pressure areas;
  • Water pressure that is too high (areas of downtown) or too low (throughout the Heights and west Hood River) in times of high use or when water is used for fire suppression.

Bell said the staff will recommend projects that can be carried out in an affordable five-year plan, and with current personnel.

“The problem is that our largest growth is to the west, yet as you go west, the ground rises slightly,” adding to flow and pressure challenges, Bell explained. (The Indian Creek pump station on the Heights was built in the past year to serve the Heights and the southwest and southeast areas of the city sewer system, and is about to go on line.)

Critical factors are sewer lines on flat slopes, conducive to buildup of oils that constrict the lines and require frequent maintenance; in some areas, crews must clean lines three or four times a year.

“Surfacing” or surcharge incidents affect peoples’ backyards and even basements, and potential projects involve easements or other line relocation methods so that sewer lines “go where they belong, underneath the street,” Lago said.

One current water pipe project is going on now on Fairview Drive, just off Belmont, to increase pressure to the Fairview/Rocky Court/West May neighborhoods; a similar pipe project is planned in 2016 just to the north, off West Cascade.

Also on the books are about $800,000 in improvements at the wastewater treatment plant at the waterfront; at least one project will help abate odor from the facility, according to Lago.

Council also gave official support to a request council Member Becky Brun will make to Sustainable Northwest for the city host a workshop on developing sustainable energy projects

“I’ll be collecting ideas from the community about the things we want to commit to getting further assistance, including technical help,” Brun said.

Because of the impending application deadline, the council agreed to pass a “minute action” rather than resolution, at city manager Steve Wheeler’s suggestion. That means the council goes on record in the minutes of the May 11 meeting as supporting the application.

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