PENDLETON — Local officials want residents to know that their water and sewer bills aren’t actually that high, or at least not as high as some other places.
At a Sept. 3 city council meeting, the city of Pendleton unveiled a study to try to contextualize its utility rates compared to other cities in Oregon and Washington.
The result: Pendleton and Hermiston are both toward the middle of the pack, closer to the bottom than the top.
“Pendleton is below the middle of the pack, and that’s about where we should be: in the middle,” Pendleton Public Works Director Bob Patterson told the council.
After receiving numerous questions about why water bills were so high, Patterson said the city compiled water, sewer, and stormwater collection data from 42 cities in every region of Oregon and southwestern Washington, ranging from 860-person Adair Village to Portland.
Pendleton compared cities based on the average amount of water an Oregonian uses, but Patterson said that number is skewed because the relatively wet weather of the Willamette Valley means customers on the west side of the state tend to use less water than Pendleton residents. So Pendleton also compared water rates using its own, higher average.
Comparing water rates using both the state average for water consumption and the Pendleton average, Pendleton is far from the top.
Pendleton ranks 27th and 28th most expensive in the state average and Pendleton average, respectively, although Patterson noted that the city was likely to rise in the rankings next year.
In 2015, the Pendleton City Council approved a series of annual 10.5% utility rate hikes through 2020. Once the next round of increases goes into effect in January, Patterson said utility rates would still rise each year based on a price index, which averages 3%.
Pendleton used the rate increases to secure water and sewer loans from the state to finance repairs and replacements to its water and sewer lines, some of which are more than 100 years old, and expand utilities to a planned unmanned aerial systems industrial park at the airport.
Hermiston is in the midst of a rate hike of its own, although its water and sewer increase is causing much more consternation among residents.
In both rankings, Hermiston is just below Pendleton in terms of utility prices, although it was likely closer to the bottom of the rankings before 2019.
The city debuted a completely revamped rate structure in March, and the increase to some residents’ water bills have led to public complaints at city council meetings.
Hermiston Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan said Pendleton’s study tracks with the own analyses his city has conducted, but after fielding numerous complaints from upset residents, he thinks rate comparisons do little to alleviate customer concerns.
“If something’s too expensive, it’s too expensive,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the other person is paying.”
Like Pendleton, Hermiston needed the extra revenue from the rate change to keep up with its infrastructure demands.
Morgan said Hermiston tried to pay for a new wastewater treatment plant in 2014 without a significant rate increase, but the resulting debt payments allowed for little breathing room to make other repairs to the utility system.
Although Morgan said the complete changeover in utility systems means it’s difficult to say how much customers’ utility bills are growing by, the city does expect total utility revenue to rise from $6.9 million to $10 million.
Both Pendleton and Hermiston have much lower utility prices than the city of Portland, where a household using 6,000 gallons of water per month will spend nearly $200 on their monthly water and sewer bills.
But the size of the city doesn’t always correlate to price of utilities: Water and sewer rates for Athena and Heppner were actually higher than the rest of the Eastern Oregon cities included in the study.
While there could be a variety of reasons why utility prices vary from town to town, Patterson said in an interview that small towns often see their rates go up when they seek a grant or loan from the state to make a critical infrastructure upgrade or repair. As a condition of securing the financing for the project, the state usually requires raising its rates to cover the debt or provide the match.
Some towns have been able to resist the trend of rising utility costs.
Milton-Freewater was either at the bottom or near the bottom of both rankings, a result that might not be surprising for a town that has the term “low cost utilities” in its city seal.
Among other things, Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall said the city has been able to use money from its reserves whenever it’s make big investments in its utility infrastructure, which has allowed the city to avoid significant rate increases.
While Hall doesn’t anticipate a large rate hike in the near future, there’s no guarantee it won’t face down a future utility emergency.
“Major catastrophes happen to all cities no matter how good their preventative maintenance is,” she said.
Although some residents might complain about the cost of utilities, Patterson said providing clean drinking water and closed sewer access are vital services that should be maintained.
“Without sewer we would be considered a Third World country,” he said.