A controversial water fee hike remains on the books despite an outcry from residents and the resignation of two budget committee members over an increase they said came as a surprise.
PHOENIX — A controversial water fee hike remains on the books despite an outcry from residents and the resignation of two budget committee members over an increase they said came as a surprise.
More than 30 residents attended a City Council workshop Monday after August water bills arrived with increases ranging from 27 percent to as much as 50 percent higher than the usual peak-season summer bills.
The workshop, initially scheduled to hear an annual presentation by the Medford Water Commission, was expanded to review a recent water rate increase.
August water bills were mailed out two weeks ago with rates charged by gallons instead of cubic feet and with the rates escalating along with the quantity used. City officials said the rate increase would create a reserve for the water fund and cover basic operating costs.
After residents reported monthly bills that were $40 to $70 higher than usual summer bills, Councilman Stan Bartell called for rescinding the new rates until further review while Mayor Carlos DeBritto suggested a computer glitch could be involved and said some "re-figuring" was in order.
Frustrated residents grew even more frustrated Monday when city officials declined to allow public comment.
Council members seemed to agree that more public notice was warranted when the rate increase was approved. More than one council member asked why public input had not been allowed in determining the new rate.
More than three hours into the meeting, consensus was taken from council members on whether to keep the new rates in place until further review, which the council members opted to do, with Bartell dissenting.
Bartell said the water revenue increase appeared to be too large, noting it grew from $105,000 in August 2009 to $158,000 a year later. He said a water rate study showed revenues would increase by $244,000 in a year. He said the city should reconsider the increase.
"... It's something that's really hurting the people so it deserves another look," he said. "And these rates are not something people can pay while the city takes the time to figure it out."
Two budget committee members who recently resigned said Tuesday they hope the council reconsiders the new rates. Bruce Sophie and Gary Reed both resigned their budget committee seats after a recent budget session.
Sophie said he resigned almost immediately after receiving his August water bill.
"My concern was two-fold," Sophie said. "At the budget committee, when they talked about the water issue, they did not have the details for the budget committee to review. They just said, 'We have some concerns with the water the way it is and we need to address that. That's all the budget committee got.
"And the thing that concerned me more than anything else, we have so many low-income families and the size of the changes was drastic. I didn't want my name attached to anything I didn't have any input to."
Reed said he personally felt the effects of the increase.
"My highest usage this summer was 5,000 gallons less than last year and I paid an additional $55 on my bill."
Reed said he also had concerns about water fund money being funneled into the general fund, a decision made during his tenure on council.
"The decision was made to put money in the general fund when we had a shortfall on the budget. There's no shortfall now, so is that still necessary?"
Council member Mike Stitt said he sympathized with residents on tight incomes but said he believed the new rates would prove beneficial to residents who conserve.
Stitt said some "bloodletting" was necessary and that the city had to decide "where to get the blood from."
DeBritto said Tuesday that the council would put the water issue on the next council agenda.
"I think they want to take another look at the rates," he said. "... I guess the only thing we can say for sure is they decided to maintain the rates as they are right now but to take another good look at the whole scenario."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.