Our Public Utilities: Providing Good Value to Ratepayers
By Commissioner Nick Fish
As submitted to The Oregonian for Sunday, January 31, 2016
On Monday I will release my proposed budgets for the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) and the Water Bureau. For the third straight year, I directed our public utilities to keep their combined rate increase under 5 percent, and once again they’ve delivered.
Budgets reflect values, choices and priorities. As part of our continuing commitment to transparency and accountability, I want to address three important questions I am often asked: what drives rate increases, what do I get for my money, and does my voice count?
Let’s start with some basics. The City’s utilities manage $21.7 billion in infrastructure, oversee more than 1,000 dedicated professionals, and protect the health of six watersheds. The Bull Run Watershed is the envy of the nation. We provide clean, safe, and reliable water to nearly a million people in the region. We manage 30 billion gallons of wastewater and stormwater annually. And last year, thanks to a partnership between BES, the Parks Bureau and the community, we welcomed salmon back to Crystal Springs.
So why are we proposing to increase rates? At the top of the list is the cost of complying with unfunded federal and state regulations. Like the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project, completed on-time and on budget, which keeps sewage out of our streams and rivers. Or the federal rules requiring us to disconnect and bury our reservoirs.
Next is the cost of replacing old and damaged pipes. More than 2,000 miles of pipe deliver water throughout the Portland metropolitan area, and 2,500 miles of pipe carry billions of gallons of wastewater to our treatment plant annually. While our system is an engineering marvel, many of our pipes are more than 80 years old. The question isn’t whether they’ll break, but when.
Finally, we are committed to making our system more resilient. Portland is at risk of a major earthquake. When the “Big One” hits, we need to be prepared. That’s why the budget includes critical investments to fortify our reservoirs and the pipes under the Willamette River.
No one likes to pay more for a basic service, especially when other household bills keep going up. A key issue for my family is: are we getting good value in return?
As Portlanders, we enjoy some of the highest quality water in the nation. The Bull Run Watershed and Columbia South Shore Well Field meet or exceed all safe drinking water standards. The city delivers two gallons of water to my house for about a penny—a pretty good deal. And by investing in green infrastructure like bioswales and trees, we are harnessing the power of nature to capture runoff and save ratepayers money.
How do our combined water, sewer and stormwater bills stack up against comparable cities? A family of four would pay double or more for the same services in Seattle, San Francisco or Atlanta. Another way of looking at value is to ask what would happen if we cut corners? Flint, Michigan is a stark reminder that investing in our water system isn’t just good policy, it’s a matter of public health and safety.
Last year, in response to community concerns, I fulfilled a commitment to improve oversight and transparency by creating a new citizen-led Portland Utility Board (PUB). I also invited the highly regarded Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB) to serve as an outside, independent advocate for our ratepayers. The CUB paid immediate dividends, recommending that we end an outdated developer subsidy. Together, the PUB and the CUB are helping us craft a responsible budget and plan for the future.
Your voice matters, too. In the months ahead, there will be plenty of opportunities for the families and businesses we serve to weigh in. Our proposed budgets will be posted online at https://www.portlandoregon.gov/cbo. I encourage you to attend a PUB meeting, participate in one of our community budget forums, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is an honor to lead our public utilities. Working together, we can continue to deliver high quality services at a fair price, invest ratepayer dollars wisely, and protect our precious natural resources for generations to come.