March ballot measure would address city's aging water system

by: SUBMITTED - Water main breaks occur nearly monthly in West Linn, adding up to $26,000 in repairs so far this year.The city of West Linn is looking to raise water rates by 18 percent this spring to start addressing an aging water infrastructure.

The city council met with the utility advisory board and members of the water system improvement task force Nov. 5 to explore adding a proposed rate increase to the March ballot.

The one-time rate increase would raise funds to start replacing and repairing the city’s water pipeline system. Under the current city charter, the city cannot raise rates more than 5 percent annually without voter approval.

Since 2011, the UAB has been reviewing the city’s needs and funding options. During its review, the UAB considered the condition of the water system, engineering and design alternatives, funding alternatives and tax impacts.

The city’s water system includes six reservoirs, five pump stations and 120 miles of transmission SUBMITTED - City staff have made several sculptures out of old pipes from the city's water system to demonstrate the decay.

According to memo from the UAB to the city council dated June 18, West Linn currently has more than 10 miles of pipe, about 10 percent overdue for replacement due to size or condition. Water main breaks occur nearly monthly and have cost the city $26,000 in repairs so far this year alone.

The city contends that the current fee structure, with the 5 percent limit, does not cover the costs of routine maintenance and improvements.

According to Chief Finance Officer Richard Seals, the city currently spends $210,000 operating the water system. However, the city needs another $540,000 a year to start bringing the pipeline to current standards over the next 20 years.

The pipes are not the city’s only problem. The Bolton Reservoir, which is 99 years old, is in dire condition and is undersized to accommodate build-out. The replacement of the reservoir will run another $10 million. However, because of a recent study of the site, there are concerns about whether replacing the reservoir at its current location is safe. So, for the time being, the city has put this project to the side, focusing first on the pipelines.

Since the 1990s, the city’s water master plan has required $750,000 annually for line improvements and replacements. Those fixes and expenditures have not happened as the city’s water revenue has continually decreased with better water conservation and expenses have steadily increased, including annual hikes from the South Fork Water Board for acquiring the water.

According to city staff, operating costs outstrip revenues from water sales by nearly $500,000 a year. To offset those costs, the city has deferred line maintenance.

The UAB is recommending the city council raise water rates for one year by 18 percent, which averages about $3 a month per household. This increase would generate the extra $500,000 annually the city needs to start making upgrades and repairs. The average utility bill in West Linn is currently $70 a month, of that $19 is the average water bill.

Residents voted down a 2010 measure asking for a water rate increase. Looking back at that defeat, city staff thinks the question was too confusing.

This time around, Seals said, “The ballot measure needs to be really simple.”

“I think this plan spreads the fix out over a longer timeframe than we planned before,” Mayor John Kovash said, asking if the UAB was comfortable with that.

Water Supervisor Jim Whynot said, “We’re comfortable with getting something. ... We’ve had nothing.”

Task force member Michael Monical said the rate increase allows the city to pay for projects as they come, rather than paying for a bond or interest.

However, City Councilor Teri Cummings expressed apprehension about supporting the rate increase as the city currently has a larger than normal reserve in the water budget this year that is not being directed toward SUBMITTED - 'Rusty' has been popping up in different locations in West Linn and even has an album on the city's Facebook site.

“I hate to see us get into something where we are not spending money we have,” Cummings said.

Thanks to an unusually dry summer, water revenues were unexpectedly high this year, giving the water budget some cushion. But Seals warned that it is not anticipated to continue.

Other councilors supported preparing a resolution to place the water rate increase on the March ballot. The council will vote on the resolution during its Dec. 10 meeting.

“I like this approach,” Councilor Jody Carson said. “This is a very conservative approach ... to address a problem that is not going to go away anytime in the future.”

To prepare voters for the measure, the city has been pushing the water issue via its newsletter, Facebook and website. Staff has gone as far as creating animal sculptures out of sections of decaying pipe and placing them around town. For more information, visit

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