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Council talks utility rate bumps

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

During an April 26 Lebanon City Council work session, Engineering Services Director Ron Whitlach provided both a peek at expected utility rate increases and an update on the city’s water, wastewater and storm utilities systems.
He reported the following proposed increases: water, 5%; sanitary sewer, 2%; and storm utility systems, 1%, for an overall 3.19% jump on consumer bills.
“A couple of reasons water is higher is (that) we got a lot of water projects coming this year,” Whitlatch said. “And with the increased costs just in pipe and whatnot that we’ve seen over the last few years, we’re at a 50 to 75% increase on some of our construction costs.”
However, he continued, these increases cover only operational costs and staffing.
According to Whitlatch, the city received about 11% less in water revenue than expected due primarily to an over-projection of fees for use. Weather conditions also affected water usage for the year. Wastewater and storm drainage revenue, however, were on track, and the city might come in slightly under budget for all three utilities.
City Manager Nancy Brewer asked Whitlatch what city staff expected to budget for sewer laterals, because the topic had been much discussed.
Whitlach replied that the city used to budget $150,000 for sewer lateral replacements through its private sewer lateral replacement assistance program, but costs over the last two years have leapt about 50-60%. Busy and understaffed contractors, as well as supply chain issues, played roles in that. As such, the city planned $200,000 toward the program.
He added that there was a roughly $50,000 increase in costs for processing credit card payment transactions.
“We get billed for it,” he said, “and that’s part of doing business.”
Whitlach then showed a chart outlining how the city’s utility rates measure against 21 comparable (and neighboring) cities using an average residence’s consumption of six units (600 cubic feet) of water. Ashland sat at the chart’s lower end with a $68.63 bill, while Newberg topped the peak at $152.94. Lebanon occupied the No. 17 spot at $131.18, just pennies shy of No. 18 Albany’s $131.37. Sweet Home followed at $135.53. The average of all cities came to $108.34. With the proposed increase, Lebanon would jump to No. 18 at $135.37, between Sweet Home and Albany.
“Some of the biggest differences between larger and smaller bills have a lot to do with where any given community is in the age of the infrastructure,” Brewer said. “The communities with larger bills are either just finished or in the process of putting in place a new water or sewer plant. Ashland is in the process of a design on a new, I think, water treatment plant and their bills will be going up to pay for the debt service on that (unless they can get a grant).”
Brewer and Whitlatch discussed how city debts and consumer rate increases factored into new infrastructure and maintenance costs.
“We sacrificed a lot as a city,” Whitlatch said, referring to the new water treatment plant, built in 2018. “We cut complete programs out. We’ve done nothing on the public works engineering side but reduce staff as we’ve gone through this process, knowing full well (we need to) find different ways to do stuff, get creative, and don’t do things that we used to do.”
Since the new plant’s construction, city staff have focused on demolishing its 77-year-old predecessor and replacing water mains throughout the city.
“We’ve got a lot of what’s called asbestos cement water mains,” Whitlatch said. “They work, but they’re a very brittle material and, as the name says, they’re asbestos cement. We’re focusing on our most high-priority ones, those being mainly with the biggest leaks.”
One runs on 7th Street from Oak to F streets. According to Public Works Director Jason Williams, that main is held together with “too many (stainless steel) repair bands on (it) to count.”
Staff also looks to replace undersized pipes, as well as pipes requiring extra maintenance to continue providing excellent water quality. Currently, the city has 82.6 miles of water mains in its distribution system.
Average funding supports about 2,500 to 3,000 lineal feet of line replacement per year, which equates to replacement of those lines every 160 years. Typical water line life cycles are about 75 to 100 years, Whitlatch said, although they can likely last longer.
“I don’t want to make that as ‘the sky is falling,’” he said. “But you run the risk of catastrophic failure the further out you go, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
City staff have identified “multiple large projects” at the wastewater treatment plant in need of completion over the next 20 years. Most are regulatory- while some are capacity-driven, Whitlatch said, and will be discussed at City Council meetings as each project approaches.
A belt filter press for biosolids has been installed until a master plan for the wastewater treatment plant is complete. That is expected by the end of the year.
“It gets us through the winter months when we can’t haul and apply to our farm fields with our solids,” Williams said of the press.
Staff are also identifying failures in sewer lines and laterals.
“We’re talking about broken pipes, leaks, major leaks,” Whitlatch said. “We’re trying to avoid the catastrophic failures.”
He added that two potential “catastrophes” were fixed this past year. One involved a disconnected pipe at Wheeler and Williams streets, which was identified while staff used video to inspect the pipes. Video, he said, helps identify such problems before they surface aboveground.
“We got to do a little more investigation, and we ended up with a giant sinkhole on the backside of a manhole on the truck route to the tune of about 20 yards of concrete to fill it,” he said.
The collection system has about 65 miles of sanitary sewer mains, which cost about twice as much to replace as the water mains because they lie deeper in-ground.
Average funding for yearly line replacement supports about 2,000 to 2,500 lineal feet, which equates replacement every 170 years. Typical life cycles for the older concrete and clay pipes are 50 to 75 years, while newer PVC pipes are expected to last about 100, Whitlatch said.
“The aging pipes, they continue to inflow and infiltrate our wastewater treatment plant,” he said. “We see that all winter long.”
In fact, the plant processes 780 million gallons of stormwater, 30% of which is groundwater, according to Williams.
Downtown-area storm drains are connected directly to the sanitary sewer, and many older homes built in the late 1970s have downspouts tied into the sanitary sewer lateral.
“So all of that water goes (to the wastewater treatment plant),” he said.
The city has about 61.6 miles of storm drainage within the collection system. Funding to replace drainage mainlines covers about 1,500 lineal feet every two to three years, but there is little concern about replacing leaking drains since only stormwater would enter the ground, Whitlatch said. Repairs are made as necessary. Staff also spend a lot of time mowing and cleaning ditches and drainage ways, he said.