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Ashland raises electricity rates on split council vote

ASHLAND — Electricity rates for city residents will increase 4 percent on Nov. 1, which means the electric bill for a typical family of four will rise about $4.50 per month.

The City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday to approve the increase after hearing that Bonneville Power Administration will raise its wholesale power rates by 7.5 percent on Oct. 1. The city's electric department sells power to customers in town and will pass on part of the wholesale rate increase.

"It certainly doesn't make me happy to raise it by 4 percent," Councilman David Chapman said, "but we're kind of in a bind because BPA raised our wholesale rate."

Chapman voted for the increase, along with Carol Voisin, Kate Jackson and Russ Silbiger.

Ashland Electric Department Director Dick Wanderscheid said the city is trying to balance the financial health of the electric fund while keeping the impact on residents and businesses as small as possible.

City policy calls for maintaining a reserve of $1.4 million in the electric fund, but the reserve fund will dip $94,000 below that target, city staff said.

Councilmen Eric Navickas and Greg Lemhouse voted against the increase. Navickas said part of the electric fund's revenues go to support general city services such as police and fire protection.

He said the city is putting part of the burden of public safety on utility customers instead of on property-tax payers.

Lemhouse said the city needs to find ways to cut expenses rather than increasing its revenues.

More electric rate increases are likely in the future, in part because BPA plans to move to a system where it will charge utilities significantly higher rates if they need more power than they use now.

The City Council has set a goal to increase conservation and the use of local renewable energy sources by 2014 to reduce spending for electricity.

Although the city already has an extensive conservation program and has invested in solar power projects, it will have to boost the amount of electricity Ashland conserves and generates with renewable sources by five-fold over current levels by 2014 to meet the council's goal, according to a city staff memo to council members.

An electric rate increase of 6 percent could be needed next fiscal year to meet the goal, the memo said.

Also Tuesday night, council majorities voted to raise transportation and storm drain fees that appear on utility bills by 3 percent each. The combined increases will take effect Nov. 1 and will cost a typical family of four an extra 35 cents each month.

Future sewage rate increases will depend on whether Ashland voters decide to renew the city's 5 percent tax on prepared food and beverages in November. The tax helps pay for past improvements to the city's sewage treatment plant.

City staff members have warned that sewage rates may have to go up by 60 percent if the tax is not renewed. Rate increases for water and Internet service have yet to be determined, according to the city staff memo to council members.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings Reach her at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.