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The Columbia Press

Columnists & Other Opinions

Mayor's Message: Relief money helps city cope with dwindling utility fund

Mayor Henry Balensifer
By Henry Balensifer III, Thursday, April 1, 2021

Federal relief money for cities is on its way and there’s a lot of questions from people about what the city is going to do with those dollars.

There still are quite a few unknowns — like how much of a cut the state of Oregon will take in “administrative costs” for creating new rules over and above the federal rules for the money. However, we do know that the money will not come all at once.

Prior relief dollars distributed to the city were earmarked solely for helping Warrentonians with rent and utility relief and distributed through Clatsop Community Action.

The first tranche of that relief was used quickly. The second did not have as much demand, but was used up. It helped the city go from having more than 200 water customers so far behind in their bills that they were going to get water shut-off notices, to only 28. To put it in perspective, before the pandemic we averaged 12 to 20 customers a month who received shut-off notices.

Specific verbiage was included in the federal bill suggesting it could be used to shore up depleted utility accounts with cities that have been burning through cash reserves to continue providing safe, clean utilities. This is what I anticipate we will be putting most of the funds toward.

While it seems puzzling to some people when I tell them, but the city’s utility rates don’t cover the operations and maintenance costs of the system.

The current commission has been playing catch up after an extended period of no rate changes in the first decade of 2000. As a result, the costs increase, but the revenues don’t. Using the federal money to backfill the shortfall will benefit ratepayers because it both covers the cost of the loss of funds and commensurate lack of rate changes in 2020.

The relief funds also are expected to be sufficient to avoid having to ask the budget committee for a rate increase this year.

I cannot guarantee this, as the budget committee is equally five appointed citizens, and five elected commissioners.

The City Commission cannot significantly alter the recommended budget by state law. However, utility relief appears to be where we’re headed.

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