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Politics & Government

Water Bill Assistance, Mental Health Services Among Cities' Legislative Priorities

The Oregon Capitol in Salem is closed to the public due to the pandemic. All meetings are live-streamed on the state legislature's website.
The Oregon Capitol in Salem is closed to the public due to the pandemic. All meetings are live-streamed on the state legislature's website.

Oregon cities are asking state lawmakers to come up with a way to help utility customers to catch up on paying their bills.

As Oregon’s jobless rate soared in the early months of the pandemic, many towns across the state announced they wouldn’t shut off water and sewer services to people who couldn’t pay their bills. But that came at a cost to local governments, who rely on utility revenue to fund their operations.

"Without the threat of late fees and shut-offs, I think the priority for paying those utility bills dropped for some of those families who were experiencing those short-term drops in income," said Dayton Mayor Beth Wytoski during an online press conference organized by the League of Oregon Cities.  

Wytoski said some customers in her Yamhill County town are more than $1,500 behind on their water and sewer bills.“We simply do not have the revenue to just magically wave a payment wand over those accounts," she said. "But those families desperately need support so they can get caught up.” 

"There are low-income assistance programs available for both drinking water and sewer, and a number of our local water utilities have those," said Tracy Rutten, a League of Oregon Cities lobbyist. "But they're really borne by those local ratepayers. And we're running into the challenge that utilities are struggling with budgetary challenges, trying to keep things operational and staffed up to provide the safe and effective service that people need."

 Rutten said raising rates on other utility customers to make up for the lost revenue could simply cause more people to fall behind on their bills. The League is exploring a number of possible ways that state lawmakers could step in. Rutten said a straight-out allocation from the state's general fund is on the asking list, although she called that "a heavy lift during these budgetary times."             

Some of the League’s other priorities during the 2021 legislative session are funding for infrastructure improvements, disaster relief and affordable housing. The advocacy group is also getting behind House Bill 2086, which would boost state funding for mental health services. 

“While cities are not generally behavioral health or addiction services, cities feel the impact when these investments are not sufficient to meet with the need," said Cottage Grove City Councilor Jake Boone. "We have heard from city leaders all over the state that there are people in their communities who are hurting, who need care, who want care, and who are not getting it.”

The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Typically, the League of Oregon Cities, like many other advocacy groups, schedules a "Lobby Day" at the state capitol. Members pay visits to lawmakers and attend floor sessions and committee hearings. This year, the building is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. While meetings are streamed online, it means lobbying has to take place over the phone or by other electronic means.    
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