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Pouring it on

Medford officials say they're getting a lot of heat lately from residents of other cities blaming the Medford Water Commission for their high water bills.

"I continually hear how excessive our charges are," Councilor Bob Strosser said.

Many residents in Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent, which rely on Medford's Big Butte Springs for their water supply, assume that the water commission is responsible for increases in their water rates.

Strosser hands complainants a chart that explains the Medford Water Commission's share of the bill amounts to less than 25 percent.

"I give them a copy of that chart," he said. "Usually, they're fairly surprised."

Strosser said the issue has come up again as residents in Phoenix protest high water rates. Prices increased dramatically for parts of the city that were formerly in a separate water district and for apartment buildings, which previously paid one fee per meter but now are charged for each apartment.

According to the chart prepared by the water commission, while the average monthly bill in Phoenix is $42.40, only $5.84 — 14 percent — is charged by the commission. Talent has the second highest rate at $42.35, with the water commission's share amounting to $5.76, or 14 percent. The comparison is based on a monthly usage of 10,000 gallons for a single-family residence as of August 2012.

A $1 million Medford levy in the 1920s allowed the Medford Water Commission to transport water from Big Butte Springs to the city. That investment nearly a century ago provides Medford residents today with some of the lowest water rates in the state at an average monthly fee of $14.52.

Over the years, the commission has signed agreements with five surrounding cities to provide water to them.

Medford residents pay the least locally for water service. Central Point residents pay $24.70 monthly for 10,000 gallons, Eagle Point $26.51 and Jacksonville $27.70.

Over the years, relations between the water commission and various cities have been strained.

Eli Naffah, Phoenix city manager, said there are a variety of factors that contribute to high water bills in his city — a small population base and the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix pipeline installed more than a decade ago among them.

"We just add up what all of our expenses are, and it's what is being paid out by our city," he said. The city spends money on meters, tanks, pipes and pumps to get water to a particular home.

A city the size of Medford has a much larger customer base that makes it easier to bring costs down, Naffah said.

The Phoenix City Council on March 26 will learn the results of a water study that could provide a blueprint for a fairer method of charging for water in that city, Naffah said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

This is an overflow canal of the Big Butte Springs water system near Butte Falls that provides Medford it's drinking water. - Mail Tribune file photo