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Water district qualifies for May ballot

Portland voters will decide whether to create an independently elected water and sewer board at the May 11 Primary Election.

City elections officials announced that supporters of the proposed Portland Public Water District had collected enough valid Portland voter signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. Statistical sampling show the supporters called 32,858 valid signatures on their initiative petitions. Only 29,786 were required.

The petition was filed by former lobbyist Kent Craford and Floy Jones, co-founder of the grassroots Friends of the Reservoirs organization.

Craford says he expects the measure to be a referendum on he council's handling of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city's sewer system and stormwater management programs. Over the past few years, controversies have erupted over some projects pushed by council members. They include the construction of the Water House demonstration project and renovation of the Rose Festival headquarters with water funds under former Commissoner Randy Leonard.

“The Public Water District initiative will be a referendum on Portland City Hall’s abuse of power. From spending restricted water funds on pet projects to retaliating against whistleblowers, City Hall’s power trip with our water and sewer bills is about to end. Mayor Hales has called ratepayer advocates terrorists; I call us freedom fighters,” said Craford.

Jones says she also expects the measure to be a referendum on water and sewer rate increases repeatedly approved by the council in previous years. Newly released budget documents show the water project projects its rates to increase 55 percent over the next five years, while the environmental services bureau expects the rates to increase 21.5 percent during that period. Jones also criticizes Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of both bureaus and up for re-election this year.

“Commissioner Nick Fish has voted to raise water rates 66 percent in the five short years since he was elected. Portland now has higher water rates than Phoenix, Arizona and yet Nick Fish wants to raise rates another 55%. Does Fish think Portland ratepayers are made of money?" asks Jones.

The signature gathering drive was largely funded by a handful or corporation that use a lot of water, including Portland Bottling, Siltronics, and American Property Management, the apartment company owned by developer Joe Weston. According to Craford, they are opposed to the rate hikes that have made Portland's water and sewer services among the costliest in the nation.

The measure has already drawn heated opposition. It includes the council and several environmental groups that fear the district will reduce funding for stormwater management programs operated by the environmental services bureau, among other reasons. They include Portland Audubon and the Oregon Environmental Council. Some public employee unions are also expected to come out against it.

The Portland City Club is expected to release a report on the measure in coming weeks.

After being assigned the water bureau last year, Commissioner Nick Fish took several steps to show it was under new management. He sold the controversial water house and worked with Commissioner Steve Novick on a five-year agreement with the statewide Citizen Utility Board to review and comment on the bureau's budget.

Mayor Charlie Hales also reduced the combined rate increase in the current budget from over 10 to under 5 percent, which the council approved. Fish is likely to propose combined increase of around 5 percent for both bureaus in next year's budget.