Public hearing set on budgetThe average Astoria household will pay $4.03 more each month for water and sewer service starting today, if the Astoria City Council approves the increases tonight.

The higher rates would bring the monthly bill to $49.91 - up from $45.88 a month for the current fiscal year. Water and sewer bills are mailed out every two months, so the average customer would be looking at a bill just under $100.

The new figure reflects an 8 percent increase in water rates, a 6 percent increase in sewer rates, and a 4 percent increase in the Combined Sewer Overflow surcharge, bringing the new total CSO surcharge to 15 percent.

The higher rates will defray higher costs for operations, maintenance, capital improvement and replacement of infrastructure. The CSO surcharge will continue to pay for a $22 million project mandated by the state Department of Environmental Quality to prevent raw sewage from overflowing into the Columbia River and Youngs Bay when heavy rains overwhelm the city's aging sewer system.

The new rates are part of the city's proposed 2005-2006 budget, which will be the subject of a public hearing at tonight's council meeting. The budget will be considered for adoption at the June 20 council meeting.

"This is kind of a 'hold-the-line budget,'" City Manager Dan Bartlett explained. "It's stable and provides a continuation of the same level of services as last year."

Bartlett said the total budget of $24.7 million is $400,000 larger than last year's. He said the city has been able to increase the contingency fund by about $101,000 for the first time in recent years. The general fund has a projected beginning balance of $975,000 and a contingency of $652,740.

To stay on sound fiscal footing, Bartlett said the city will raise fees "pretty much across the board." Citizens should expect to pay more for everything from building permits to photocopies. Even so, Bartlett said in many cases fees don't cover the full cost of services and must be subsidized from the general fund.

The general fund will subsidize the Aquatic Center to the tune of $220,000 in the 2005-06 fiscal year, up from $195,000 in 2004-05. The city's Ocean View Cemetery will receive $45,000 from the general fund. Bartlett said one of the city council's goals is to have performance audits done on both the Aquatic Center and the cemetery. He said as soon as the budget is approved, the city will begin the process of hiring consultants to analyze operations of both entities and come up with business plans for them.

The big paving and road repair project started last year will continue. Bartlett said there's money left over from last year, which combined with $100,000 from the state tax street fund, should be enough to complete $570,000 of improvements. Last year's paving season was cut short by especially rainy weather after work on the east side of town had been completed. This year, work will concentrate on the west side, Bartlett said.

The capital improvement fund of $375,000 includes money that will go toward projects including an interpretive park at Smith Point; interpretive signage along the River Trail; Aquatic Center shower improvements; a Youngs Bay Landing assessment study; Safeway plaza development; two new police cars; and a fire department command vehicle. Many of these projects will also be funded by grants.