The Hermiston City Council made it easier for low-income residents to get a break on their water and sewer bills Monday.

The council approved a proposal by city staff after a significant increase in utility rates in March increased the number of hardship applications the city was receiving.

City manager Byron Smith said the city’s previous process involved submitting an application detailing the customer’s income sources and expenses, which a committee would then use to decide whether the person should be given a discount.

“There were a lot of ‘ifs’ in the process before,” Smith said.

The new system adopted Monday requires people to apply annually, using their federal tax return for the year. If the applicant doesn’t file their taxes until partway through the year, they can get credit for payments they already made. If the applicant falls below the federal poverty line, they will be given a 50% discount on their base fee for water and sewer, which under current rates would be a total discount of $32.50 per month.

Using tax returns and the federal poverty line was recommended by the public infrastructure committee.

“The reason it came up was that there was so much subjectivity, it was nearly impossible to get on it,” said councilor John Kirwan, who represents the council on that committee.

Mayor David Drotzmann expressed his approval for the plan, noting that reapplication yearly should provide a more accurate picture of who needs a discount, such as in cases where someone loses their job but then later finds another one that pays well.

During time for public comment, Jackie Linton of Hermiston said when she was knocking on doors during a past campaign for city council, she heard from citizens who said they didn’t have money left over for food after they paid for bills such as water and sewer.

“Thank you to the city, and city councilors, for having compassion on those who are low income,” she said.

The program is opt-in — people who might qualify must submit an application. Smith said since 2012 the city only had 10 applicants, but he expects more people to apply in light of the complaints the city received this year about rate increases. If everyone who qualified for the discount applied, city staff estimate the city could lose 3.5% of its expected water and sewer revenue, at which point Smith said they would need to consider adjustments to the program or rates.

The city’s current utility rates are $35 base rate for water plus 50 cents per 1,000 gallons up to 15,000 gallons and $3.50 per 1,000 gallons beyond that. Sewer is $35 per month plus $3 per 1,000 gallons used, calculated based on average monthly use in December, January and February.

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