Rates could be going up for water customers outside of Astoria’s city limits — but not as high as originally proposed.
At a meeting Monday night, the City Council walked back from a proposal by Public Works staff that would have gradually raised the percentage out-of-town water users pay on top of their regular water bills from 10 percent to 25 percent over the next three years. A 5 percent increase would have gone into effect starting next July.
After hearing the concerns of outside water customers and water district and association members, the council asked staff to come back in December with a 2.5 percent increase starting next summer.
Water customers outside the city limits include a handful of small water districts and associations and other users like Tongue Point Job Corps Center.
The average out-of-town water customer would have paid an additional $2.35 a month, or $28.25 a year, for each 5 percent increase recommended by city staff. But water district and water association groups maintain their own infrastructure off a city main and often must pass these costs on to customers. The groups also pay for any water lost due to leaks or burst pipes.
The city, meanwhile, must account for lack of water storage tanks and must do more to ensure water quality to outside customers, Support Engineer Cindy Moore said.
A representative from the Job Corps said the center is on a fixed contract for the next two years and higher water costs would impact the program. Tom Savage and Alex Raichl of the Olney-Walluski Water Association said the justification for increasing to 25 percent wasn’t clear, arguing that the city spends little to maintain the out-of-town systems.
“If the rates are going to go up that high over the next three years, we only use 5 to 10 percent of your mass water production, so I don’t feel that it’s right to put that on outside city users,” Raichl said.
After the meeting, Raichl said he was glad the increase for next year had been cut in half, but he wished city councilors had delayed their decision until they could investigate what other Clatsop County cities are doing for out-of-town water customers.
For Public Works staff, the proposed increase would have accomplished several goals. It aligned with a request from the City Council for departments to reexamine fees that hadn’t been adjusted in years — in this case, since 1984.
A 25 percent charge would have also brought Astoria closer to industry standards of 24 percent to 50 percent, and closer to what other Clatsop County cities require. However, Moore added, all of the cities have different sources of water, manage it differently and serve different customers.
The increase was also pitched as a way to slowly raise funds and share the cost for a new clearwater tank across Astoria’s water customers. The tank, estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million, will increase capacity at the city’s water treatment plant and improve disinfection and operational flexibility. Since Astoria serves multiple out-of-town customers, city staff said a larger structure was necessary. Moore added that an increase to the fee out-of-town customers pay alone will not fund the new tank.
City councilors were divided.
Councilor Bruce Jones said the city has been looking at fees across departments, and, in many cases, raising them.
“For the last 33 years, our outside customers have been very fortunate to have a 10 percent surcharge compared to anywhere from a 25, 50 to 100 percent surcharge that all the other municipalities (in the county) charge,” he said.
Councilor Zetty Nemlowill said rates for basic necessities like water should be viewed differently from other projects.
“It’s something that everybody needs to live,” Nemlowill said. “It’s not like raising the rate on cemetery plots or aquatic center passes.”
“I do not have clear evidence that we’re losing money on these customers,” she concluded.
Mayor Arline LaMear and councilors Tom Brownson, Nemlowill and Jones voted in favor of a resolution outlining a 2.5 percent increase next year. Councilor Cindy Price, who had suggested waiting for two years to impose any fee changes to give customers like Job Corps time to adjust, voted “no.”