Ashland water bills will be 10 percent higher and sewer rates will go up by 20 percent effective April 20.

Ashland water bills will be 10 percent higher and sewer rates will go up by 20 percent effective April 20.

On Tuesday night, the Ashland City Council reluctantly but unanimously approved the rate hikes.

"I don't think anyone up here likes to raise fees," Councilor Greg Lemhouse said.

The combined rate increases will cost a typical family of four in a 1,500-square-foot house with landscaping an average of about $6.60 more each month, city staff estimated.

The city has fixed overhead costs for running its water and sewage treatment facilities. But mild summer weather has reduced water sales as people cut back on outside watering. With fewer people eating out because of the economic recession, tax revenues from the city's sales tax on restaurant meals have fallen. Most of the meals tax goes to make debt payments for past sewage plant upgrades, said Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg.

He warned that the 10 percent water rate increase and 20 percent sewer rate increase are still not enough to make the water and sewer funds financially healthy.

Tuneberg said he would have recommended rate increases that would have cost a family of four $10 more per month, but he was concerned about the impact on residents.

An even more drastic sewer rate increase is on the horizon if voters don't renew the city restaurant sales tax.

That tax sunsets in December 2010, but the city has to keep making payments on the state loan that funded the sewage plant upgrades until 2023, Tuneberg said.

A 60 percent sewer rate increase would be needed if the tax is not renewed, he said.

The City Council has not begun debate yet about whether to put a tax renewal on the ballot.

The city spends about $100,000 a year on programs to help low income people, disabled people and low income senior citizens who have trouble paying their utility bills.

For information, call the Senior Center at 488-5342.

The city also plans to put information about its utility bill assistance programs in a prominent place on its Web site at www.ashland.or.us.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.