Low-income households in Philomath will be able to find some relief from rising water bills following action taken Monday evening by the city council.
Those who qualify will continue to pay the city’s previous water base rate of $14 per month. The base rate recently went up to $19 per month and will increase again Jan. 1 with a jump up to $24. But for the low-income customers, the water base rate will continue to be $14.
“It’s a similar program to what we do with the utility fee for folks in need,” said Councilor David Low, who chairs the city’s Finance and Administration Committee.. “There’s a separate application that we’ll require and it will be based on HUD’s Benton County low-income limits.”
The city’s finance committee recommended using the same criteria that is used for the general fund fee discount, which is based on the Housing and Urban Development “very low income limits” for Benton County. Currently, those limits range from $29,300 for a single person to $55,250 for a household of eight.
City staff reached out to several other communities to see if they offered discounts. Out of 17 cities surveyed, only three offered any help for low-income households — Veneta, Winston and Lebanon.
“I think that speaks well for the intent of Philomath to recognize that we would do something for our citizens,” Low said.
According to information provided by the city’s finance director, Joan Swanson, Philomath will need to borrow approximately $9.4 million to build a new water treatment plant and reservoir with the loan to be paid out of the water fund. As such, the water rate increase were implemented to cover the new loan payments.
“Although the first loan payment is two years in the future, the city council elected to start raising rates above normal cost-of-living increases effective July 1, 2019,” Swanson wrote in a staff memo. “The council had two objectives. First, to ease the rate increases over the next two years. Additionally, any extra revenue collected now will be used for construction and reduce the amount that will be needed to borrow.”
Water rate increases have been a common theme among those who speak during public comment opportunities at city meetings.
“Ultimately, if we keep their rates low, then we’re making a decision that the balance of customers will essentially subsidize that, true?” Mayor Eric Niemann asked.
“You can look at it that way but again, I think this is a city with heart, that we want to try to recognize there are folks that have maybe greater means than others and for the folks that maybe don’t, we want to be able to do what we can to help them," Low said.
Councilor Marion Dark said that during the finance and administration committee discussions, it had been brought up that only 25 families in town were getting a general fund fee discount. As such, officials might expect similar numbers for those seeking water rate increase waivers.
“I think from the city’s financial point of view, I wouldn’t say that’s a great big deal,” Dark said.
To receive the discount, customers will need to fill out a separate application. The low-income base rate will be added to the city’s rate schedule and reviewed again next year along with other utility rates, Swanson said.
The council approved the action on a 5-0 vote (Matthew Thomas absent, one seat vacant).
In other news from the Aug. 12 meeting:
• The council approved on a 3-2 vote (Doug Edmonds, Chas Jones, Low yes; Dark, Niemann no) a motion to appoint Ruth Causey to fill a vacant seat on the council. See separate story.
• The council unanimously approved an Oregon Liquor Control Commission application for Marcotte Distilling Co. The business already has a permit for its moonshine operation but needed another licensing approval for a new product.
• The council voted 3-2 (Edmonds, Low, Niemann yes, Dark, Jones no) to direct the Philomath Police Department to move toward the re-establishment of a K-9 program and accept a grant award by Working Dogs Oregon and Howling Creek Kennel in cooperation with the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police.
• The council voted 5-0 to direct city staff to apply for a Transportation Growth Management Code Assistance Grant and if awarded, authorize City Manager Chris Workman to move the process forward. Workman said Philomath was a prime applicant with its downtown streetscape project on the horizon. The grant focuses particularly on linking land use and transportation planning for small cities and the issues that face their downtowns. If the grant materializes and Philomath accepts it, city staff and the selected consultant would work with the planning commission on updating city’s development code.
• The council approved an ordinance on 5-0 roll-call vote to renew an electric utility franchise agreement and general utility easement with Pacificorp. Workman said the city budgeted to receive $216,000 in revenue from the electric utility franchise fee with those dollars to be placed in the general fund. The agreement will be in place for five years with an option to renew for another five years.
• Several individuals spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting with topics including overpopulation and impacts, recording all city meetings, growth and development, lack of citizen involvement in decisions, water rates and the approval process involving annexation criteria.