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Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 23 June 2011

Seeing a significant amount of unhappiness with the recent water rate increase, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he wants to make sure any future rate decisions are put through a more impartial process.

Last week, Saltzman proposed the creation of an independent utility commission that would take the work of rate changes, finances, budgets out of the hands of the mayor's office and into the hands of a group of citizens.

Saltzman said the current process can let politics get involved and the proposal – which he stressed is not set in stone – would add a level of professionalism, accountability and impartiality to water and sewer utilities.

The city will be holding a work session to discuss the proposal at 9:30 a.m. on July 19 at City Hall. Saltzman is currently seeking public comment about the proposal. Details about the commission and its role can be found on Saltzman's web site at www.portlandonline.com/saltzman.

If the current plan is approved, the commission, housed under the city auditor's office, would receive budgets from water and sewer bureaus, review those budgets with the help of a professional staff, hold public hearings, and set rates. The budget and rate proposals would then be submitted to the council at large, which would then hold more public hearings and vote on their decision.

As to whether a public commission would mean a difference in the amount the average resident pays on their water bill, Saltzman said he wasn't sure.

"I can't guarantee anything," said Saltzman, but he hopes that an experienced five member commission, along with a professional staff split by the water and sewer utility bureaus will be able to do a more rigorous analysis of cost of service increases, budget expenditures and financial plans.

Saltzman's office manages the Bureau of Environmental Services, which handles sewer services. The water bureau's administrator David Shaff did not return a request for comment by press time.

Mayor Adams Communications Director Amy Ruiz, said Adams is supportive of the matter. Currently, it is Adams' office that reviews rate and policy changes and makes recommendations to the council for approval.

During the 2004 city council race, candidate Adams wrote that the decision of utility rates shouldn't be decided in a single commissioner's office.

"Because of the specialization of their services, their size and complexity, a single Commissioner-in-Charge and the five members of the City Council cannot adequately provide oversight to the City's $1.4 billion utility operations," he wrote. "Much like the State Public Utility Commission, I propose appointing a seven-member City of Portland Utility Board (folks with expertise on utility and environmental issues) that would be empowered with some independent operational authority over the Water and Environmental Services bureaus, unless overruled by a vote of the Portland City Council."

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