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City Council weighs utility hike

Medford residents could see an increase of up to $11 in their overall utility bills by 2014 under a proposal the City Council is expected to consider in the next two months.

Utility fees would rise gradually each year, with the first one effective in March 2010.

The proposal would raise additional revenue for the Public Works and Engineering Department, which provides streets, storm drains, sewers and planning services.

The department has a backlog of maintenance projects and no money to pay for them. Medford's water and sewer charges are among the lowest fees in the state, officials said.

Under the proposal chosen by the council for consideration, the total utility bill for a single family residence could rise from $21.66 to $23.62 in 2010. Fees would be set at $25.56 in 2011, $27.49 in 2012, $31.07 in 2013 and $32.73 in 2014.

Those figures exclude public safety, water and city park fees.

The rate hike would provide funds for deferred maintenance projects, establish a routine street inspection program, make the department self-funded, and begin amassing funds to construct offices for public works and engineering staff members, who work out of modular buildings next to City Hall, said Cory Crebbin, Medford's public works director.

As part of the plan to better maintain streets, street inspections (most likely by bike or on foot) would be conducted every other year, Crebbin said.

Streets need to be sealed every five to seven years to protect the asphalt from the sun, in a process that's similar to using sunscreen for the skin, Crebbin said.

If a street isn't sealed, cracking occurs, and the asphalt can become brittle, accelerating the degradation process, he said.

Public works doesn't have the money to seal streets that frequently, Crebbin said. As a result, the department can afford to do only 30 percent of the street maintenance that should be done each year. The longer a street goes without a sealant, the more likely it is to need a complete pavement overlay or total reconstruction, he said.

It costs about $1 per square yard to seal a street, whereas it costs $11 a square yard to do a street overlay, which must be done every 10 to 15 years in the absence of sealants, Crebbin said.

Streets such as Cedar Links Drive, Stewart Avenue, East Main Street and Highland Drive have obvious signs of cracking and need a complete overlay, he said. In addition, there are about 20 miles of streets that require reconstruction, Crebbin said.

"If we don't keep up maintenance, that number keeps growing," he said.

The City Council weighed four different options for future utility fees during a work session Thursday before deciding to consider the proposal that would set utility fees at $32.73 for a single family residence by 2014.

Other choices included no rate increase above what's already been scheduled ($22.86 in 2014) and adjusting the rate to maintain the current level of service ($29.10 in 2014). A third option ($30.17 in 2014) would have included sealing streets every five to seven years and other street repairs, but it would have excluded funds to build public works office space and ending reliance on the city's general fund for the public works and engineering budget.

Currently, the city's general fund provides $720,000 per year of the public works and engineering budget.

If only 30 percent of street maintenance is completed each year, the city eventually will need to rebuild 70 percent of streets over the next 10 to 15 years, Crebbin said. That would cost about $121 million based on 2007 paving costs, according to public works estimates.

The rate increase would be "a demand on the public, but a shorter demand," said Councilman Chris Corcoran. "They're getting more bang for their buck."

The existing street system in the city is valued at about $250 million, according to public works estimates. It includes about 587 lane miles of streets.

Reach Paris Achen at 776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.