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The price of life in Eastern Oregon

Rent, utilities, internet, phone, gas, food, health care, child care and more factor into cost of living.
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on September 7, 2018 3:57PM

Last changed on September 10, 2018 12:36PM

When calculating cost of living, the price paid in utilities can be a major factor.

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When calculating cost of living, the price paid in utilities can be a major factor.

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Increases in cost of living are easy for some budgets to absorb, but for others a few dollars here and there can make the difference between having the money to pay rent or not.

Cost of living can feel hard to control. Someone on a fixed income doesn’t get to choose the price of gas in the town they live in, or refuse an increase in water rates. One place they do have a direct voice is when new taxes land on the ballot.

James Tiede of Hermiston said he is not opposed to all taxes, but frequently comes out against proposals like the recent attempt to create a new OSU Extension Service taxing district because he believes the “people out here who run the show seem to be real tax-happy.”

When he bought his home in Hermiston in 2007 it was valued at $150,000, he said, and as home values have risen so have his property taxes. He said he paid about $3,300 last year in property taxes.

Campaigns for bonds and levies tend to be framed by their supporters in terms of being “only” the price of a coffee per week or some other purchase. But Tiede said for many folks in the area, there isn’t a lot of extra room in their budget for additional cost-of-living expenses.

“They think it’s a bottomless pit for taxes, and it’s not,” he said.

The same goes for utility rate increases — Tiede said since he and his wife moved to Hermiston they have noticed their utility bills keep going up and up.

“You don’t have much control over that, other than trying to conserve water, electricity,” he said.


Utilities


There are some noticeable differences in utility costs between Hermiston, Pendleton and Boardman. A water bill, for example, would be $49.07 for 24,400 gallons per month in Hermiston, $56.35 for the same amount in Pendleton and $24.15 in Boardman.

Bob Patterson, Pendleton public works director, said in an email that it was hard to make an “apples to apples” comparison for what the average person’s utility bill might be in each city. Differences in weather, types of homes, topography, age of infrastructure, number of customers and other considerations all factor in to every city’s utility rates.

“Hermiston and Boardman are relatively flat and do not share the same topographic challenges, or staffing, operation, and maintenance expenses for utility costs,” he said. “Topographically, we deal with about 500-feet in physical land elevation difference from our high points to our lowest service point.”

Those hills make it more expensive to pump water to homes.

Different cities also include different costs on their bills. Some, like Pendleton, include the city’s storm drain system in with sewer charges while others just factor in wastewater. Pendleton also includes a $2.70 per month street charge on its utility bills. Hermiston does not, but that doesn’t mean residents don’t pay for it — when the city raised franchise fees to help fund street maintenance, internet and cable companies said those costs would be passed on to customers.

Tom Gauntt, a spokesman for Pacific Power, said people can take steps to lower their energy bill. Energy Trust of Oregon, for example, offers a free online home energy review that asks detailed questions about people’s homes and energy use and suggests ways they can save on their power bill. It can be found at www.energytrust.org/residential/evaluate-your-home.

CAPECO offers an energy assistance program for people in Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam and Wheeler counties. Jody Warnock, program manager, said the program — funded by state and federal sources — has served about 3,300 households since last October. Each year of the program opens to the elderly and disabled in October and the rest of the population on Dec. 1.

Warnock said participants must be below 60 percent of the state’s median income. CAPECO then sends a subsidy to the utility company to cover part of the bill for any source of heat, including electricity, natural gas, propane or wood.

She said CAPECO offers energy assistance because keeping up with utilities can be a struggle when other costs hit, and it is important for people — particularly vulnerable populations like the elderly, disabled and children — to have a safe and comfortable home.

“It’s a nationwide problem because of cost of living,” she said.


Housing costs


While utilities play a role, the largest cost for most people is housing. According to HUD, fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Umatilla County is $745, and a one-bedroom is $572. Morrow County is $697 for two bedrooms and $524 for one, although Umatilla County Housing Authority director Stan Stradley said HUD’s calculations tend to be about three years behind what the market is actually doing.

Stradley said ideally a family’s rent or mortgage makes up less than 30 percent of their disposable income, but there are a lot of people in the area working low-wage jobs where their rent is taking up more than half of their income (according to the state, one out of every six renters in Umatilla County is paying more than 50 percent).

“What we’re seeing is a lot of families moving in together to share rentals, because of the affordability factor,” he said.

A family would have to be bringing home more than $2,400 a month to rent a $745 two-bedroom apartment in Umatilla County at only 30 percent of their net income.

Part of the problem is a housing shortage, which helps landlords feel more comfortable raising rents and not fixing up rentals. Laurel Rogers, who handles Section 8 housing vouchers, said she is seeing situations where rentals don’t pass inspection for a voucher recipient to move into and landlords ask why they should fix it when they can find someone on the open market desperate enough to take it instead.

“It just baffles me that they can get higher rates for something I would not move my family into,” she said.

The housing shortage also encourages high rates of commuting between cities, which is a cost that can further burden lower-wage workers. And if a family is getting a housing subsidy for an apartment in Hermiston and then moves to Portland, the Umatilla County Housing Authority has to keep subsidizing their rent. Rogers said in this area the average Section 8 subsidy is about $400, but that jumps to about $1,200 in the metro area — leaving less money for families still living locally.

Stradley said UCHA has been applying for years for funding to build more low-income housing, but the state’s formula — which gives points for things like available public transportation — favors the metro area too heavily for Eastern Oregon to get the money for a new building project.


Other costs


Housing and utilities form a baseline for cost of living, but families and individuals have to factor plenty of other basic costs into their budget.

Health care can be costly — on the federal exchange a family of three in Hermiston earning $30,000 a year can get health insurance for only $1.38 a month, but at has a $13,100 deductible. That plan estimates treatment of a simple fracture would set the family back $1,900 and a health pregnancy would cost them $6,850. Another plan shows up at $63.64 a month, but the family’s estimated cost of a typical healthy pregnancy drops to $860, and $340 for a simple fracture. It’s a high-stakes gamble for families that have to make every dollar in their budget count.

Two incomes can help a family earn more for housing and other costs, but it often means childcare expenses. The Department of Human Services set its standard rate maximum for unlicensed childcare facilities at $435 a month for toddlers in the Hermiston area and $475 a month in the Pendleton ZIP code.

Gas prices vary by city, influenced in part by gas taxes, and can become a significant line on a monthly budget for those who must commute between cities for work.

Cell phones and internet have also become necessary costs in this technologically driven age. Eastern Oregon Telecom, which provides internet in west Umatilla County and parts of Morrow County, offers $29.95 for 3 mbps download speed. Wtechlink offers Pendleton residents $39 a month for 2 mbps.

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Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.



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