Water and sewer rates will increase in Hermiston starting in March.

The city council unanimously approved the rate increases Monday. Both water and sewer rates will go up 5 percent in March 2017, 5 percent in October 2017 and 4.9 percent in March 2018.

Assistant city manager Mark Morgan said the increased revenue will help pay for maintenance, “remote-read” water meters and de-watering equipment for the wastewater treatment plant.

Currently the city spends $225,000 per year, including two full-time employees, to read water meters one by one. Morgan said putting in meters that send data to the city automatically will put that down to the equivalent cost of one half-time employee. The meters are expected to pay for themselves in about 7 years but not need to be replaced for 15.

Besides saving the city money and increasing employee safety, Morgan said there will also be benefits to the customers. They will be able to track their daily water usage, which could be especially helpful for irrigators. The system will also be much faster at catching leaks or a running toilet, and users can get a notification on their phone if a sudden, prolonged spike in usage indicates a problem. Morgan said he’s heard lots of stories of people being hit with an unexpectedly huge water bill because they didn’t know for weeks that a pipe was leaking into the ground.

“I went on a trip to Idaho and my toilet was running and I came back and my water bill was twice what I expected it to be,” he said.

On the sewer side, the extra revenue will pay for de-watering equipment that will help more efficiently take care of the solids filtered out at the recycled water treatment plant. The city recently spent $1.4 million emptying the lagoons where the solid waste goes after it is filtered out, and Morgan said with the new treatment plant’s stronger filtering capabilities, that will now need to happen every three years.

“It’s filling the lagoon much more quickly, and that’s not something you want to overflow,” he said.

The $1.5 million equipment would reduce costs down to $85,000 per year, meaning the investment would pay for itself in three and a half years.

The rate adjustment the council approved Monday means the average water user (at 11,220 gallons a month) will go from $27.83 per month currently to $29.22 in March, while the average sewer user will go from $23.56 per month to $24.74 in March.

City councilor Doug Smith said that while the city understands that raising rates are a hardship on people, it also has decades-old pipes that “look like Swiss cheese” and it needs to save up some money to fix them before a major incident.

“We’re trying to do as much as we possibly can with as little as we possibly can,” he said.

On Monday the city council also approved new parking spaces downtown. As a “pilot program” for changes in the future, the council agreed to change the parking spaces on the north side of Gladys Avenue between Second Street and Third Street from parallel parking to diagonal spaces.

The change — which Morgan said was easily reversible if people don’t like it — will add four new spaces in front of the library and help address residents’ aversion to parallel parking if the parking lot is full.

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

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