Water Rights?

Phoenix mobile-home residents say they are being charged unfairly
Nancy Miller, manager for Bear Lake Mobile Home Estates in Phoenix, looks at a water meter Thursday. Residents of the park are unhappy with how much they pay for water.

PHOENIX — While she agrees that residents should pay for the water they use, Bear Lake Mobile Home Estates manager Nancy Miller says residents of her park feel they are being charged unfairly while being provided a lower level of service than residents of single-family houses.

Concerns with how the city charges mobile-home parks, and a lack of distinction between residential and commercial users, have prompted city officials to consider revisiting water rates despite a lengthy process just last year.

How mobile home parks are charged elsewhere

Phoenix City Manager Eli Naffah said the City Council has asked him to survey cities around the region and the state to determine how mobile-home parks are charged for water.

Phoenix residents pay one of the highest base rates in the Rogue Valley, with base rates in surrounding cities hovering between $8 and $12.

Polled by the Mail Tribune on Friday, Medford, Talent and Central Point city officials all said mobile-home parks with single commercial water meters are charged based on usage and not "per unit."

In Medford and Talent, mobile-home parks are charged according to meter size, in addition to a usage rate different than that paid by single-family residences. Central Point mobile-home residents pay a flat $39 commercial base rate in addition to usage.

Miller and more than three-dozen Bear Lake residents attended a recent City Council meeting to voice their concerns. In addition to the city not having different rates for residents and commercial users, Miller said her park has just one water meter but is charged a $33.50 base fee per housing unit.

In essence, the 210-unit mobile home park pays a minimum $7,035 each month for water.

"Every month, even with just the one meter, they still pay for 5,000 gallons at each unit whether the home is for sale or someone is gone five months out of the year," Miller said.

"And most mobile homes don't have a lot of yard, so it's unlikely even a family in a mobile home would go over 3,000 gallons, much less 5,000."

A double whammy for the residents, Oregon Senate Bill 929 mandates that mobile-home parks with 200 or more units must install sub-meters by year's end to gauge actual use by residents.

Bear Lake residents will pay $9 per month for 60 months to repay the $150,000 in expenses for installing individual meters despite the fact most or all of the park's residents still will pay only the minimum base rate assessed on the first 5,000 gallons.

Bear Lake resident Steve Schulman took issue with the fact that a park with one meter is charged "as if it had 210 meters," when base rates are typically charged to cover water department expenses such as meter reading and maintaining infrastructure.

"If a pipe breaks in Phoenix, it gets fixed. That's included in the rate. If it happens out here, (park management) gets a crew out and residents get billed for the repair," Schulman said.

"But they're charging as if we're in the city and they're reading 200-plus meters and taking care of our pipes."

Schulman agreed that water should be charged based on usage and meter size, noting, "Home Depot pays the same rate as a single-family house — and they use swamp coolers to cool the whole building."

City Manager Eli Naffah said the council acknowledged some concerns with the current water-rate structure and planned to pursue a rate study with the Rural Community Assistance Corp. (www.rcac.org).

"Based upon our demographics, we're eligible to have a no-cost study done for our city, so there will be a series of workshops and meetings with both residents and the council and with the water commission to try to get feedback and input," Naffah said.

"We recognize there is some need to analyze different areas, such as the mobile-home park and commercial versus residential issues. RCAC will evaluate the structure we currently have to determine if there's a better approach."

Council member Jeff Bellah, who served as chairman for the city's ad hoc water committee before joining the council, was frustrated that the need to fine tune some areas of the new water rates was being mistaken for a need to repeat a lengthy process conducted by citizen volunteers.

"I think there's room for us to look at some focused areas, like for the people in Bear Lake Estates, but I really am not for looking at everything all over again," said Bellah.

"We put a lot of work in and came up with a plan that was reasonable and fair for everyone. We have such a small population base, so even without the cost of water it costs 30-some dollars just to pay for infrastructure and employees. That's not even counting the $15 million in infrastructure improvements we have to figure out how to replace over the next 20 to 30 years."

Bellah said basic charges to residents for services such as water, fire and police are paid despite usage levels.

"We have to pay for fire protection whether we use it or not," he said.

"The base rate is to cover the expense of providing the service. I think we had some pretty accurate numbers and a good handle on costs and potential revenues. We'd be spinning our wheels to go back and do that all over again."

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