The Medford City Council reluctantly approved utility fee hikes last week for storm and sewer systems over the next three years, but worried about the impact the increases will have on families struggling with the housing crisis.
“I don’t think that raising fees for folks is the way to do this,” Councilor Kay Brooks said at the council meeting Thursday.
Monthly storm drain fees for single families would increase 10 cents to $10.25.
Sewer would go up about 23 percent over three years, from the current $20.47 to 21.92 in July, to $23.53 in 2019 and to 25.15 in 2020. Rates for multifamily and commercial buildings also would go up.
A large portion of the sewer fee is set by the Regional Rate Committee for the sewage treatment plant. It is currently $13.18 a month, but will go to $17.86 in 2020. The remainder of the sewer fee pays for maintenance of the 265 miles of pipe within the city.
The council held off on a 9 percent increase for street fees through the next three years to find other ways to finance maintenance projects.
The vote was 5-2 in favor of the rate hikes, with Councilor Clay Bearnson abstaining. The ordinance will come back for a second reading.
Brooks, who voted against the ordinance, said many families in the city are barely able to afford their rent, and the city’s frequent fee increases place additional financial burdens in a community where the cost of housing has increased significantly in recent years.
“We need to look at things more innovatively,” she said.
Cory Crebbin, public works director, said sewer rates in Medford are still significantly less than in many other Oregon cities.
Beaverton just raised its rates from $45.54 to $46.91, according to the Portland Tribune.
Crebbin said the city hired a consulting firm to come up with appropriate rate increases to adequately maintain utilities in Medford.
Based on the information provided by FCS Group in Lake Oswego, the rate increases should be less and less as the years go by, until they’re down to 1 percent by the eighth and ninth year, Crebbin said.
“That will ensure we won’t have rate shocks in the future,” he said.
If the council decides to continue rate increases, Medford’s utilities should be in good shape, according to Crebbin.
“It establishes a good foundation for taking care of the system into the future,” he said.
Crebbin has told the council previously that investing money in utilities now means spending far less later, because it is far more expensive when sewer lines or streets fall into disrepair.
While some councilors thought the increases were modest, others pointed out that the city has hiked rates in the past.
“We’ve already raised sewer 29 percent in the past three years,” Councilor Dick Gordon said. “We can’t keep on going like this.”
Gordon supported the ordinance but said the city needs to find other sources of income rather than increasing fees and putting a burden on low-income residents.
Councilor Tim Jackle said, “I agree that there are other sources of funds. I will not support the motion.” Jackle didn’t mention what other funds could be used for utility projects.
Councilor Kim Wallan said she is generally against raising utility fees but said the city should maintain sewer and storm drains now rather than incurring more costs down the road.
“We need to do the relatively cheap fix now rather than spend five times the amount later,” she said.
Revenue from the rate increases will add $440,000 to the city’s sewer account in 2018, then $530,000 in 2019 and another $530,000 in 2020. Storm drains will get another $57,500 in 2018.
The city historically has had a pay-as-you-go philosophy on utility maintenance, while other cities issue bonds to finance public works projects.