Bill Me Later
After taking a thumping over the past year, which has been characterized by cutbacks and staff layoffs, the city is ready to put the final stamp on its budget blueprint for the next two years. The council meets Wednesday night, after this issue has gone to press, to approve the final version of the 2009-11 City Budget. And it isn't pretty, especially for ratepayers who are getting socked with hefty increases for water and sewer services next year. Residents will see an additional 8.25 percent tacked onto their water bills and a hefty 14.5 percent increase in their sewer rates. Councilor Jim Clinton said he opposes both increases because the staff has failed to provide any incentive for conservation in the rate structure.
Clinton said he's particularly miffed about the new sewer rates, which are totally unrelated to actual water usage.
"It doesn't matter if you're the most heavy water user dumping millions of gallons down the drain, or you're the most frugal person on a fixed income who flushes your toilet twice a day," Clinton said.
So why the big rate increases?
Because, says Clinton, the city is so far behind on its expansion plans after years of undercharging politically powerful builders for developer's fees that would have helped build and maintain the city's infrastructure in the post-boom era. Add in an oversized UGB proposal and companion city facilities plan that includes millions of dollars in additional sewer line to serve new development on the north and west side of Bend and you've got a recipe for big rates increases - to the tune of 50 percent on water and sewer over the next five years.
"This is an obvious subsidy for big sewer users and for future growth," Clinton said.
Burn Baby, Burn!
In other regressive city news, the Bend council is looking to expand the window for burning yard waste and other debris even as local haulers and the landfill have expanded their yard waste removal and disposal programs. The change, which is reportedly being championed by council newcomer Tom Greene, would double the number of days for large lot owners to burn yard waste, from two to four, at the fire department's discretion. As under the current system, residents would have to file for a burn permit from the city. While a "time-honored" tradition for some long timers, many larger cities in Oregon have already banned outdoor burning over health concerns. A representative from DEQ told councilors at a recent work session that Portland, Salem, Eugene and Medford have all banned burning and that impacts are most severe for infants under 18 months, as well as the elderly and those with chronic illness. There's also an impact on the city's fire resources. Last year the department fielded 136 calls about outdoor burns, the vast majority of which were not permitted.
Not everyone is in favor of increasing burn days, council moderate Mark Capell has said he would support a full ban and Clinton said he would like to keep it at two days while moving toward a full ban.
But look for the council to go in the other direction, at least in the short term.
A Win For Fish in John Day
In non-city related news, The Oregon Natural Desert Association struck another blow for the conservation of native Steelhead in the John Day Basin. The organization, whose work is most closely associated with the Badlands Wilderness campaign, has been active in the John Day Basin for more than a decade in an effort to enhance wilderness protections and curb chronic overgrazing that is threatening streams and fish populations on public lands. ONDA has won a series of decisions against the Forest Service over the past several years that could drastically alter how ranchers and cattle impact sensitive stream habitat. On Monday, a federal judge handed down another ruling that temporarily expands protections for streams while the agency shores up its mitigation and monitoring programs. In total, US Federal Court Judge Ancer Haggerty put more than 330,000 acres and 235 miles of stream in the upper John Day Basin temporarily off limits to grazing while the Forest Service gets its regulatory house in order.
"The Court's order once again reinforces the position we've taken with the Forest Service for a decade now," said Brent Fenty, ONDA's executive director. "Our hope is that the injunction will give the Forest Service the chance to do the right thing and bring its grazing in line with what the Endangered Species Act requires to protect native trout in forest streams."
Interestingly, conservation groups aren't the only ones litigating over stream impacts in the John Day area.
A ranching couple from Dayville recently filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service alleging that agency needed to do more to control wild horses and elk which they contend do the majority of damage to fish habitat. Not surprisingly, ONDA, which has gathered independent data, disagrees.