HermistonDEQ permit holding up plan to use recycled water for irrigation

Wastewater churns in the aeration basin before being sent through a filter to remove organic matter in 2016 at the Hermiston Wastewater Treatment facility in Hermiston.

Water and sewer rates will increase by 2.15% for Hermiston residents starting in March.

The increase is an automatic update tied to inflation. When the city council passed a water and sewer rate restructure in 2018, the restructure included a significant increase for most customers at the time, with larger water users paying higher rates. The 2018 ordinance also included a provision that, starting in March 2020, rates would automatically increase yearly based on the Engineering News-Record Construction Cost Index as of December of the preceding calendar year.

Last year, the index rose by 2.15%.

According to a memo in the agenda packet for the Monday, Feb. 22, city council meeting, the average water user’s combined water and sewer bill would increase by about $3.06 in August (the highest usage month of the year) and $1.73 in January (the lowest).

Mayor David Drotzmann said the council had been in an uncomfortable position in past years of raising rates by a large amount at a time after years of no increases. Now, he said, the smaller increases by inflation should help keep up with rising construction costs for continued maintenance of the city’s water system.

“Now we’ve put a pathway and plan in place that it grows with the community, and it grows with the plan, and it’s not something where we have to come out and ask for a 15% increase every few years,” he said.

Water and sewer revenue pay for maintaining the city’s water and sewer infrastructure to prevent leaks and other failures. During the Feb. 22 council meeting, Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan presented an upgrade to the city’s capital improvement plan, which lays out the water, sewer and street projects the city plans to accomplish over the next five years.

The plan was first adopted in 2019 and will be updated every two years. Morgan said based on guidance from the capital improvement plan, the city accomplished 14 road, sewer and water projects totaling $2.7 million over the past two years, ranging from repaving 11 blocks of Hermiston Avenue to replacing one-half mile of 1920s-era water mains.

Water and sewer projects scheduled for the next five years include replacing a 40-year-old booster station, four lift stations, 3 miles of aging water lines, and the membrane that filters water at the recycled water treatment plant. On the street side, the city plans to realign the intersection of Geer, Harper and River roads and use funding from the Oregon Legislature to rebuild North First Place between Hermiston and Elm avenues. The total cost of capital projects planned for the next five years is just over $20 million.

The full capital improvement plan can be found online at hermistonprojects.com, but the website also breaks it down into a more user-friendly version, where residents can click on any project — searchable by completed projects, those in progress and those planned for the future — and learn more about the project, the timeline for completion, the budget, and how much the projected ended up costing the city.

Councilor Maria Duron said when rates went up in 2018, she was one who didn’t understand why they went up so much, but she appreciated that city staff have put out so much information online to lay out exactly how the money will be used.

“Thank you for making it so clear,” she said. “I was reading through it, like, ‘OK, now I get it, now I understand,’ so putting it out there for people to have access to the information is so laudable.”

Morgan said one of the benefits to having the plan in place is also that the city can quickly take advantage of federal or state dollars that may come up that are looking for “shovel ready” projects to fund.

Other business

During the Feb. 22 meeting, the council also approved by a 6-1 vote a private-partnership with CGI Communications for a downtown banner program.

The decorative banners, attached to light poles downtown, will come at no cost to the city. CGI Communications will sell sponsorships of the banners to local businesses to pay for them, and will pay the city’s parks and recreation staff to maintain them if any become damaged or need replaced.

Councilor Nancy Peterson was the sole “no” vote, and she said she thought it wasn’t a good time for a city-affiliated project to be asking local business owners for money, even if it was a voluntary advertising opportunity.

During the council’s monthly financial report, City Finance Director Mark Krawczyk said his fears about low property tax revenues had not come to pass, and the city has collected more than 98% of its property tax revenue.

The pandemic has affected city revenues in other ways, however, including the loss of rental fees at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center, and the loss of state gas tax funds when people stopped driving during the state’s initial pandemic shutdown.

Krawcyzk said department heads continue to do a good job of sticking to “mission critical” expenses only to make up the difference.

City Manager Byron Smith said the city has officially closed on the sale of the Lanham Building next to city hall, which the city plans to demolish with the old city hall and use the property to fulfill parking requirements for the new, larger city hall.

The meeting ended with a closed-door executive session by the council to discuss “real property transactions.”

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