Say ‘No’ on water district measure: Editorial endorsement

Say ‘No’ on water district measure: Editorial endorsement
By The Oregonian Editorial Board

April 12, 2014

The quote assigned to Mark Twain, though there is no proof he ever said it, now more than ever seems true: Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting. The water war in Portland this year is over who runs the city’s water and sewer bureaus – and whether the city’s antique form of government has allowed rogue commissioners overseeing the bureaus to saddle ratepayers with stratospheric costs supporting pet projects having nothing to do with water services.

The sad truth is everybody in the fight is kind of right. Portland’s utility rates are among the highest in the nation. Portland improperly used ratepayer funds for, among other things, the notorious Water House, and it traded water bureau property to facilitate renovations on a building for the Rose Festival – projects championed by former Commissioner Randy Leonard, who alone oversaw the water bureau but won council support for both off-mission projects. A ballot measure going before voters next month would, if passed, create a utilities district that yanks the water and sewer bureaus away from City Hall and brands itself a ratepayers-first entity – and it thus has enormous surface appeal.

But Ballot Measure 26-156 falls short in too many ways, and poses accountability riddles of its own, to do any good – indeed, it could bring harm. Voters should reject it. The projects it cites as proof of runaway spending are appalling for their symbolic value but in reality play only a bit part in driving rates up. The measure is the wrong solution to a City Hall problem only now finding definition.

Proponents make the case that ratepayer funds have, in an era of limits on increases in property taxes, been drawn from a “honey pot” of money to support projects having nothing to do with the delivery of water. They point to the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services as overstaffed and under-directed; in the case of BES, in particular, they cite the diversion of ratepayer dollars to green infrastructure projects as overreaching. They correctly assert both bureaus are less than transparent in their budgeting and rate-setting processes – throwing fuel on the fire as ratepayers experience sticker shock upon opening their quarterly bills. Kent Craford and Floy Jones, petitioners for Measure 26-156, deserve credit for forcing the question and laying bare practices that undermine the credibility of the bureaus.

But the water system Portland celebrates – from pristine Bull Run, near Mount Hood, to faucets in the homes of about 980,000 customers 50 or so miles to the west – needs continuous maintenance, upgrades to aging infrastructure and complex integration by several city offices. Some things that don’t immediately seem related to drinking water – keeping the Willamette River free of stormwater overflows containing raw sewage – require one-time installations at dizzying expense: Big Pipe, a $1.4 billion underground project mandated by the U.S. government, accomplishes its task but creates longterm debt service pushing utility bills skyward.

What needs fixing is a legible, responsive government at City Hall that can take into account ratepayer concerns and make plain the processes by which the bureaus set priorities and rates. Both bureaus, which oversee public assets worth $15 billion and whose operating budgets approach $700 million annually, should and must be known for doing only those things that fulfill the mission of delivering to ratepayers clean and safe water from Bull Run as cheaply as possible while ensuring the region’s projected needs are reliably met.

Commissioner Nick Fish assumed direction of both bureaus last year and tried to reestablish public trust with the sale this year of the Water House – it was too little too late, frankly. Last week, he told The Oregonian’s editorial board that he and Mayor Charlie Hales would establish an independent commission to consider best forms of Portland utility governance and rate-making – if voters reject Measure 26-156, which he insists would have “disastrous consequences” for ratepayers. His concern about unintended consequences is echoed by both the City Club of Portland and the Portland Business Alliance, which studied the measure and fear its complications would set the city back while doing nothing to cut utility rates.

Among the measure’s complications is a requirement that utility district candidates meeting stringent no-conflict rules would, if elected, be so inexperienced as to be unsuited to running a large water system. Some opponents have argued, not unreasonably, that such representatives might favor in their pricing big-volume industrial water users, making the rate burden upon residential customers even greater. Most problematic, however, is the measure’s stipulation that places a utilities district beyond review by the city’s auditors, despite a promise that the district would audit itself – throwing a different shadow over the subject of accountability.

Portlanders should take Fish and Hales up on their promise to have an independent task force review and report to council by fall on how the water and sewer bureaus can establish, once and for all, transparency, public engagement and mission-alignment now and in the years ahead. To do that, however, Measure 26-156 must be defeated.