Local cities are closely scrutinizing — and in at least one case, criticizing — the draft of a new contract from the Medford Water Commission that would be common to all the communities that get their water from the commission.
Cities were given drafts of the agreement in November with the commission seeking opinions by early next year, commission spokeswoman Laura Hodnett said.
Central Point, Eagle Point, Talent and Phoenix have had a water coalition for more than two year to address issues affecting the water they receive from the commission. The coalition has questioned and criticized commission plans and procedures at times.
Talent and Jacksonville will continue to operate under existing agreements until new ones are signed, Hodnett said. The five-year agreements expired earlier this year and other city's agreements will expire in a couple of years, she said.
"(The agreement) has gone out to various city attorneys. We are just waiting for the next (coalition) meeting in January where we will have legal opinions from the different cities," said Talent City Councilor Darby Stricker, who represents her city at both coalition and commission meetings.
Those opinions could lead to a decision on a collective approach, she said.
Coalition members and the Medford Water Commission disagree on how soon to expand water treatment facilities on the Rogue River.
Commissioners are urging a more rapid schedule that might increase system development fees, while the coalition has call for greater conservation.
Coalition members have questioned the commission's rate structure and methodology of determining charges in the past.
Stricker said Talent officials disagree with Water Commission Manager Larry Rains' portrayal of the new agreement as one with little change. She noted the draft is 11 pages, compared with the four pages in the previous agreement Talent signed in 2008.
"When I did take that draft back to the city, we didn't find it was a little changed, we found it was wholly changed," said Stricker.
Hodnett notes that the draft agreement includes provisions for systems development charges that were previously separate and adds in a new section on water quality reporting. Differences had crept into agreements with the cities over the years and commissioners asked for a common one, she said.
Stricker had several criticisms of the proposal.
A statement on the first page that "the Board "¦ is under no obligation to act in the best interests of any customer outside the city of Medford..." was characterized by Stricker as "a little heavy handed."
Some of the cities that rely on the Water Commission have criticized the price they pay for that water, which is higher than what's charged Medford residents. But the Water Commission has defended its position, noting that Medford created the system and has made improvements to the infrastructure since the early 1900s.
Water Commission members in November unanimously rejected the idea of joining the coalition formed by the surrounding cities. Jacksonville recently dropped out of the coalition, saying it had no issues with the commission.
Hodnett said the board will consider making changes to the draft agreement, but that some of the wording was recommend by attorneys.
"I don't think the intent is to have massive changes," said Hodnett. "It will be (the commission's) decision as to how much change will occur.
A requirement that cities plan for additional water sources was criticized by Stricker as lacking definitions and specifics. She also questioned a clause giving the commission full authority to impose new system development charges.
"That's something that should be studied each and every time," said Stricker. "It's like granting them a blank check."
Hodnett said the provision makes the commission's position clear.
"It is saying what has always been the case," said Hodnett. "They are welcome to come to our meetings and provide input, but in the end the decision is by the commissioners as given by the city (of Medford's) charter."
Stricker said regardless of the outcome of the current issues, the coalition's efforts will have a positive effect.
"The long-term benefit is combining our intelligence to create better conservation in the valley and to have some effectiveness when we work together," said Stricker.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.