Frustrations over water rates in Hermiston reached a boiling point Monday as dozens of residents showed up to the city council meeting to voice their complaints about an increase implemented in March.
The public comment section of the meeting lasted more than an hour, with some citizens taking more than one turn at the microphone.
“I have to pull extra shifts at work to pay my water bill, which means time away from my kids, time away from my family,” Kirt Hickey said.
He said that information put out by the city ahead of the increase made it seem like he would be seeing a $20 a month increase, instead of jumping from $80 to close to $300. Others at the microphone also described seeing a spike in the past couple of months that was more than twice what they had previously been paying.
They said they felt lied to by the city.
The rate restructure has residents paying a base rate of $30 per month plus 50 cents per 1,000 gallons of water up to 15,000 gallons, before the cost jumps to $3.50 per 1,000 gallons. City staff told commenters that estimates of how much their bill would increase had been based on an average over the course of the year, with the expectation that lawn irrigation would cause much bigger increases in the summer months compared to winter.
Residents said that was small comfort to people who couldn’t make ends meet now.
“Seniors are having to choose between medications or water,” Larry Smith told the council.
One woman described cutting back to showering every other day, and hearing that her neighbors were showering together to save water. Others said they had stopped watering their lawns, creating a fire hazard and nuisance.
“I’ve been here my whole life, went to school here, and I’ve never seen it look this bad,” Jesse Brazil said, referencing the number of brown lawns he was seeing around town. “I’m so mad about it.”
City councilors told the crowd they sympathized with the struggles of higher rates, as they, too, were affected as residents of the city. Councilor Rod Hardin, recently retired, said he was adjusting to life on a fixed income and the water rate increase had cut into his budget.
City councilor Roy Barron said he had needed to make adjustments in his household as well, and understood the feeling of frustration with increasing taxes and fees at a local, state and federal level.
“You see yourself losing money here and losing money there and I’m sure the water was a tipping point,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Where is that money going?’ and the hard thing with (water) infrastructure is that it’s not always things people see.”
Mayor David Drotzmann said the city’s public infrastructure committee spent two years compiling a list of all of the water and sewer projects the city needs to complete and found the city is “way behind.” The city is more than 100 years old, he said, and some of its water is still running through the original pipes put in a century ago.
The increased water rates were not making a profit for the city general fund, he said, but instead every penny is being funneled back into making sure the city continues to have safe and reliable water service. The city had to balance concerns about higher rates with concerns about being the “next Flint, Michigan,” he said.
“We have some impending problems,” he said. “We’re trying to prevent broken pipes, lead in our system.”
Resident Sandra Hickey said she understood the concern about maintaining the system, but pointed out that as a homeowner when she wants to improve her home she saves up and fixes a little at a time as she has the money. She said she wanted to see the city take a similar approach.
“Most of us out here, when we go up stairs we go one at a time, we don’t jump to the top,” she said.
Jackie Linton, the only citizen who commented when the city council voted for the rate increase in October, told the rest of the group that she had seen the decaying pipes pulled out of the ground and brought to city council meetings, and had listened to the hours of discussion in the meetings preceding the vote. That had helped her understand the need.
“This wasn’t done overnight, and it was open to the public,” Linton said. “I voiced my opinion at the time, just like everyone here could have done.”
Drotzmann told the group that as the city gathers data in the coming months, the council could look at that information and consider any adjustments that might be needed.
In the meantime, he encouraged residents to take conservation measures and work on fixing leaks that may be costing them hundreds of dollars a month. He said the city’s water app had alerted him to a leak in his line and that fixing it had already saved him $160 in the first month.
He thanked everyone who showed up to share their experience with the rate increase.
“Keep holding us accountable,” he said.