Capital improvements to Hermiston’s water and sewer systems are moving forward as the weather warms up, but the improvements come with a price — literally.
In March, the city’s increased utility rates kicked in, prompting complaints on social media and to city hall from residents on a tight budget who weren’t expecting to see as much as $40 a month added to their bill. Jerald Carlson, a Hermiston resident, wrote to the East Oregonian that his bill had increased by 50 percent.
The rate restructure for water and sewer was voted in during the Oct. 8 city council meeting.
Assistant city manager Mark Morgan said he’s been getting phone calls asking why rates went up, and he has explained that the city had been “undercharging” for water and sewer since it opened a new wastewater treatment plant in 2014. The result was that so much of the city’s water and sewer budget was going toward paying off the debt for the plant that “we didn’t have any money at all” for needed improvements to the rest of the system.
“Nobody likes to see their rates increase, but costs continue to rise,” he said.
Now that the city has additional revenue flowing in it has gotten started on projects, such as tearing up Southeast Seventh Street between Main Street and Newport Avenue to replace 650 feet of sewer line. The city began work last week and the project is expected to take 45 to 60 days.
The previous 8-inch sewer line there was too small to support continued development on the south side of town, according to the city, and had resulted in crews installing a temporary bypass system during the Umatilla County Fair each year.
Other upcoming projects include new pumps and lift stations, replacing the computer system that runs Hermiston’s water and sewer and replacing what Morgan called the “Swiss cheese pipes” built in the 1920s.
One water project not paid for by the rate increase is a new water tower that the city plans to break ground on April 17 at noon at the corner of Punkin Center and Northeast 10th Street. The public is invited to the event.
The tower and 2 miles of water mains surrounding it will be paid for completely by payments in lieu of taxes by Lamb Weston, which is undertaking a major expansion outside Hermiston.
The new water and sewer rates implemented in March aren’t a straight percentage increase, but rather an overhaul of the entire rate structure. The city implemented a base charge of $35 a month for sewer service plus $3 for each 1,000 gallons of use. Previously customers paid a $27.25 per month flat fee.
Since the city does not have meters to measure customers’ wastewater output, usage is based on an average of the customer’s December, January and February water usage when all of their water is presumably going down the drain and into the city’s sewer system instead of into their lawn. Each March, the city will recalculate the customer’s sewer bill based on the most recent winter, meaning the sewer rate customers saw on their March bill is the one they will be paying for the next 12 months.
Water users now pay a base charge of $30 per month, plus 50 cents per 1,000 gallons up to 15,000 gallons and $3.50 per 1,000 gallons thereafter. Morgan said the large increase in price for gallons above the 15,000 gallon threshold means residents’ water bills will go up by a larger percentage some months than others.
In a chart comparing the old rates and new rates for an “average” single family home with yard, for example, a customer using 3,850 gallons in January would pay $21.10 under the old rates and $31.93 now. But if watering their lawn in July pushes them up to 33,775 gallons, their bill will jump from $60.79 last year to $103.21 this year.