One day after the city of Ashland budget was adopted the council approved an electric utility rate hike, with all but one city councilor voting in favor on Tuesday night.
The hike, which goes into effect on July 1, would raise the average consumer bill by $3.74 per month, according to Mark Holden, Ashland Internet Technology and Electric Utility Director. This increase is less than the $7.33 per month increase proposed in April which did not receive council approval.
Holden said the increase is due to higher fees charged to Ashland by the Bonneville Power Administration, increased staffing costs mandated by employee contracts, increased materials costs and the need to improve infrastructure. “We’ve got to do this. We had two power outages recently. We can’t afford to let that go,” said Holden.
Councilor Stefani Seffinger agreed. “No matter our usage we have to maintain our infrastructure. There’s no way around it,” she said as she argued for a flat increase as opposed to one based on usage.
Councilors comments came after Ashland resident Leah Appleberry's emotional plea during public comment urging councilors not to approve the blanket increases. “This rate increase doesn’t seem like much to some, but for those of us on a fixed income who have all of our costs increasing all around us, it’s got to be put in the big picture,” Appleberry said. When asked if she could qualify for low income or senior assistance, Appleberry became tearful, explainging, “I make $50 too much.”
Holden maintains that the electric utility rates are lower in Ashland than surrounding communities like Talent which is served by Pacific Power. However, Ashland has the electric users tax which was put in place in 1972 and also a franchise users tax which compensates the city by Ashland residents for the use of its right of ways to provide power.
The lone dissenter of the increase was Councilor Dennis Slattery, who told the council he had hoped to have more public meetings about increases in fees and taxes prior to passing any such measures. “We said we were going to talk to the public and listen and we didn’t,” Slattery said.
Councilor Traci Darrow expressed concern in raising the rates, especially due to its impact on the poorest residents of Ashland. “Ideally the low income folks could receive the most help," she said. "I understand the cost of things going up and the need to maintain our utility, but I’m concerned that we help with people who need every dollar.” Darrow suggested making the qualifying threshold for assistance with electric bills be increased.
During the budgeting process, the citizens on the Citizens Budget Committee were critical of the council’s ideas of raising fees and taxes to pay for services. “There’s a way to balance the budget without raising fees and that’s cutting costs,” said Garrett Furuichi, co-chair of the budget committee. The chair, Dave Runkel, was also critical of raising electric utilities and other fees, saying it would “cost every man, woman and child $570 dollars more per year,” he argued at Monday night's final budget meeting where the city’s two-year budget was passed by the committee, but remained subject to final tweaks by the council.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.