Warrenton - Warrenton residents will be paying more for water and sewer service.

After a heated discussion, the Warrenton City Commission voted 3 to 2 to approve a 15 percent hike in sewer rates and an 8 percent increase in water rates, effective July 1. That means the monthly flat rate for sewer service, now $32.66 a month, will go up to $37.56.

The base fee for water service will rise from $14 per month to $15.12.

Mayor Paul Rodriguez and commissioners Jeff Hazen and Russ Farmer voted in favor of the fee increases. Commissioners Gil Gramson and Dick Hellberg voted no.

Gramson said he would support a 1 or 2 percent increase in water rates, but not 8 percent. The capital reserve fund for water has increased to $1.4 million from $800,000 the year before, he said. "With that kind of increase set aside in capital reserve funds, couldn't we set aside this increase?" Gramson asked.

Hellberg said he questions some of the projects the reserves are needed for and believes a rate study completed several years ago should be re-examined.

"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves," Hellberg said. "The only way we'll get out of this mess is through growth," Hellberg said. "Otherwise, the cost is prohibitive to the city."

Hellberg said the fact that Warrenton's water rates are lower than rates in other cities doesn't matter to him.

Farmer pointed out there had been no capital reserve category in place for the preceding 20 to 30 years. "That's how we got to the $8 million deficit," Farmer said. "What we have in the fund now is a drop in the bucket."

After the meeting, Farmer said in rate increases are part of a plan to get the city's water system financially solvent and put money aside, "so we do not end up with the level of impact that we're currently facing, which is an expensive water plant that really had no capital monies put aside for its construction, and therefore the rate payers are now suffering the consequences of those earlier decisions." Hazen, the former mayor, said he sees the rate increases as planning for the future.

Gramson, who was Warrenton city manager for 25 years, said before the vote it would have been impossible to plan for the increased expenses for sewage treatment which resulted from changing state regulations. "Instead of spending $1 million we had to spend $8 million," Gramson said. "Who could plan for that?"

Laurie Sawrey, the city's finance director, told the commission the rate hikes are reflected as increases in revenue to the water and sewer funds in the city's 2004-2005 budget, which was approved Wednesday night on a 4 to 1 vote, with Hellberg casting the only vote in opposition.

Sawrey said the 15 percent sewer rate increase is definitely needed to meet the city's obligations, including operations and debt service on loans. The money from the water rate increase will go into savings, she said, so the city won't have to take out loans to pay for improvements such as the proposed "inter-tie," which would pipe water from Astoria across Youngs Bay to Warrenton.

Gramson said the inter-tie is really to help the Port of Astoria and he doesn't see why Warrenton taxpayers should have to pay for it. The port owns the Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton, and needs more water pressure there in order to further develop the property.

In other business, Rod Gramson's request for a zone change for 3.73 acres along Northwest Warrenton Drive, next to Carruthers Equipment Co., won initial approval from the commission. An ordinance will be drawn up to change the zoning from water dependent industrial shorelands to medium density residential.

Gramson, represented by consultant Mark Barnes, presented a tentative plan to develop 13 detached houses and eight town house-style homes.

Patrick Wingard, the city's planning director, spoke in favor of the zone change, saying Warrenton is promoting "mixed use" zoning. He predicted similar zoning changes will follow this one. "Zoning has really come full circle," Wingard said, "allowing people to live near where they work."

Gil Gramson, Rod's brother, excused himself from the discussion.


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