Tuesday, February 23, 2010

PURB reprimands spending, then calls for more spending

On Feb 18, the PURB Water Subcommittee issued some budget recommendations to the Portland Water Bureau, and I'm having a mixed reaction to them.

On the one hand, the subcommittee recognizes rates are out of control, and that spending is inappropriate (sometimes inappropriately allocated, as in the case of transportation projects paid for with water bills). But this PURB subcommittee is recommending PWB spends $200,000 to have an outside consultant look at their spending. I sort of thought that’s what PURB was supposed to do, for free. Some of the language used to introduce this recommendation reminds me that the newest subcommittee member, Mr. Crean, once served on a taskforce to “investigate” privatization options for a water utility in Maryland. http://www.msa.md.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5339/000113/004000/004342/unrestricted/20071180e.pdf

Then there is the other hand, and the very poignant “conclusion” in this newest recommendation:

The current system for setting water & sewer budgets and rates has the systemic problem that it lacks effective checks and balances. This situation is made even worse by Portland’s commission form of government where each commissioner directly oversees a portfolio of city bureaus. The upside is that commissioners have more freedom to innovate. The downside is that there is minimal oversight of bureau operations by the other commissioners.

In our opinion this is a severe shortcoming when considering the utility bureaus because the commissioners have unlimited authority to raise rates to match spending for those bureaus. After noting that the PURB has unsuccessfully tried to deal with this issue in the past, we are now convinced that the current system cannot ensure that water services are provided to consumers at just and reasonable rates. We believe all of our concerns also apply to how the council handles BES. However, because we are the water subcommittee of PURB we have much deeper awareness of the situation with PWB.

For these reasons we are recommending taking steps to move toward a new process, with substantial checks and balances, for establishing budgets and setting rates for PWB and BES.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bull Run land-swap not a good deal for citizens

We often hear the City Council assure us that logging and development could never happen in the Bull Run watershed because the land is Federally managed and therefore Federally protected. Today, the Portland Water Bureau brings to City Council a land-swap proposal involving land in our watershed. This swap will remove some of our watershed lands out from underneath significant Federal protections.

Oregon Wild, formerly known as the Oregon Environmental Resources Council, has been involved in the development of this proposal and they have flagged a serious flaw with it; you can read their article alerting citizens to this flaw here: http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1780/blastContent.jsp?email_blast_KEY=1168789

Stakeholders like Oregon Wild have worked with the City to write a new “protection code” for City land, so that the Bull Run watershed land that is about to move from Federal hands to PWB will be similarly safeguarded as if it were still Federally managed. According to Oregon Wild, this new code goes a long way to offering solid protection but falls short in one key area: it is weak on public involvement when management makes major decisions (like, say, choosing to log).

In an email to one concerned community member who contacted City Council this week regarding this land-swap, David Shaff of PWB assured there would be plenty of time to weigh in on this discussion in the future. Don’t worry your pretty little head, what we are deciding today is of little consequence, you can speak later (clearly, my own editorializing of what I read in Shaff’s letter). Portlanders know better; weighty agendas are furthered with incremental decisions like this one. There is no reason to move forward with any land-swap discussion if we can’t first all agree on how to protect that land once it is removed from Federal hands. PWB has historically been hostile to public involvement, and as long as that culture persists within PWB, citizens must be cautious and not let go of any leverage.

Bull Run has a long and sordid history. The parties involved and their agendas are nothing short of complicated. At times, both the Federal government and the Portland Water Bureau have promoted logging and commercial development within our watershed; at every turn, involved citizens have been the protectorates of our watershed and our drinking water. I once read a great PHD thesis exploring 100 years of competing influences in Bull Run, which presented differing definitions of “natural resources”. The paper is “Cooperation and Conflict in a Federal-Municipal Watershed,” by Roy R. Wilson (I found pages 84-124 quite educational and enjoyed reading about the 1973-76 legal case regarding logging in Bull Run).

Be suspicious. We have arrived in a new era in which Wall-Street discusses water as “the new oil”, while it leverages water-system investments as awkward as the ones it made in real estate. If competing influences in our watershed have been complicated before, they will be mind-boggling from here on out. Citizens will need to actively police decisions made in Bull Run. These new City Land protection codes don’t offer the public the kind of oversight access they will need in this new paradigm. If Oregon Wild says this proposal is flawed, you don’t want it to move forward.

UPDATE 2-21-10: Unfortunately, Portland's City Council approved this agenda item regarding the land-swap proposed in the Bull Run watershed. Only Commissioner Amanda Fritz stood with the myriad of citizen-groups requesting more substantive public participation policies; Commissioner Fritz voted to halt the land-swap discussion until the flaws in the city-land protection codes are addressed.

Commissioner Nick Fish was disappointing on this vote, contending his yes vote was just the beginning of a conversation; he fails to recognize the leverage sacrificed by allowing the discussion to move forward while so much of the community is already dissatisfied. Nevermind the fact that they aren't listening to citizen input right now, they promise to listen more, later on in the conversation.

This vote allows the Portland Water Bureau to formally open the next phase of the land-swap process. If left unchanged, these new city-land protection codes (now the only safeguards on the land to be held by PWB) seem to eliminate all environmental impact review processes, previously provided for under Federal regulations and open to public input. PWB can now move on any development on their new land holdings without a review. You can view the City Council discussion on this topic, items 220 and 221: http://www.portlandonline.com/index.cfm?c=49508&a=286230

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Letter To City Council - Facts Don't Support Policy

Via email 2-1-2010

Dear Commissioners -

The Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association respectfully urges Portland’s City Council and the Portland Water Bureau to press on in the fight to keep Portland’s open reservoirs, so as to avoid wasting millions (if not billions) of dollars for unnecessary new facilities. We find the January 17, 2010, letter from Friends of the Reservoirs raises a number of substantive points, and it advises a course of action we support.

In the 1973 case to protect Bull Run from logging, Judge Burns rather pointedly put his finger on one of the flaws in that debate. He drew a distinction between statements of policy or purpose, and statements of fact. At that time, the Federal government issued policy statements like “logging will protect Bull Run from catastrophic fire,” but upon investigation the facts proved logging increased both the risk of and the damage caused by fire. Portland is again in a position where the Federal government has asserted a statement of policy: “covering your reservoirs will protect public health.” And once again, when Portlanders investigate, the facts just don’t bear out. EPA has documented multiple cases of death and illness caused by infectious Cryptosporidium outbreaks in drinking water systems. Every single case was either in a system with covered drinking water storage, or in a system where sewage, industrial, and farm runoff mixed with drinking water. The policy to “protect people from infectious Crypto” can be supported. The facts, however, don’t seem to support the use of “coverings” as a meaningful treatment technique for microbes.

We once again respectfully urge City Council to resist giving in to LT2 projects that waste ratepayer monies.

Stephanie Stewart
On behalf of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mayor's office recognizes Solarize Portland

Last week a representative from the Mayor's office (Megan Ponder) said some very nice things about the Solarize Portland project as she presented Tim and me with Certificates of Appreciation. I came home and proudly posted my certificate on the frig, which is where these sorts of things live in my house. The resident 4-year old was noticeably delighted by the notion that Moms can get certificates too.

The award was a surprise, so I had a little trouble catching up with what was happening and I missed taking notes on some of the statistics Ms. Ponder cited about the project. But she was nice enough to share her comments in writing, so I can share some of them with you now:

The City of Portland would like to recognize the efforts of Stephanie Stewart from the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association and Tim O’Neal the Sustainability Coordinator for SE Uplift for their joint efforts to bring the volume purchase model for solar photovoltaics to Portland. Their efforts have created an unmatched demand for solar that no other private or public entity has yet been able to create.
The program had 300 people sign up, and we expect about 150 of those households to go solar. Southeast has approximately 60 systems already installed through the Solarize program and over 50 of those were in 2009. Solarize SE held approximately 50% of the market share of all Portland area installs and the program didn’t even kick off until June. Other co-benefits to the program include re-roofing work, energy efficiency upgrades and enhanced community spirit.

Appling for a BDS permit online

Have you tried purchasing a building permit online from Portland's Bureau of Development Services? Not every permit is eligible for this type of transaction, but as I understand it, any permit available as an "over-the-counter" building permit can be purchased and managed online (I think the over-the-counter designation goes to permits that don't require a plan review of some sort). Here is a link to the Permits Online page: http://www.portlandonline.com/bds/index.cfm?c=42781

I tried this out yesterday with a small project on my house, and it worked pretty nicely for us. On Tuesday morning (between feeding my 4 year old and starting a load of laundry) I pulled an over-the-counter plumbing permit for a rain drain. It cost $100, and it was immediately issued. Eight hours later the ground was trenched and the piping was in place, so I went back online to request an inspection (while sauteing the onions for the dinner dish). At 7:30 am on Wednesday morning the inspector left me a message saying he'd arrive between 9:30 and 11:30 am. He arrived at 9:26 am, took about 6 minutes, and we were approved to finish. While the $100 seems like a high tax on this job, the process was relatively painless and efficient.