CITY UTILITIES

Salem utility bills will increase about $5 monthly for homeowners in 2023

City utility rates will increase about 5% for most homeowners in 2023 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem homeowners can expect to pay about $5 more per month for city water and utilities starting in January.

The Salem City Council on Monday unanimously approved a utility rate increase for 2023 and 2024 despite public testimony overwhelmingly opposing the increase, with many city residents citing existing hardships due to inflation and high gas prices.

Councilors Jackie Leung and Jose Gonzalez were absent.

The new rates, effective in January, will see the average Salem home pay about $98.68 per month for water, wastewater and stormwater services, up from the current average of $94.

Rates will rise a similar amount in 2024, with the average home paying about $103.57.

“I understand the need to meet the ever-increasing rising costs of materials and employees. However, the City of Salem is made up of a lot of retired people who live on fixed incomes that do not receive increase. It is hard enough to keep up with the increase(d) costs in food, fuel, and prescriptions as it is, not to mention the crazy high rent,” read one typical comment submitted to the council.

The increases are intended to cover rising operational costs due to inflation and needed system repairs, according to the council agenda.

“Nobody wants to raise rates if it’s not necessary, but it’s necessary,” said Councilor Trevor Phillips during the meeting.

The new rates were first approved by a city task force which included city councilors, representatives from other local governments and Salem businesses.

Peter Fernandez, the city’s public works director, said during the meeting that the city’s strategy is to have small, consistent rate increases annually, rather than having to significantly increase rates in response to crises like the toxic algae bloom in 2018, which rendered the city’s water temporarily unsafe to drink.

Councilors cited that approach in voting for the rate increase.

“There are so many things that can happen, I just feel better having that little bit of cushion there,” said Councilor Micki Varney during Monday’s meeting.

Rates will also increase for multifamily, commercial, industrial and institutional utility customers, though the amounts vary based on usage. A city report of sample bills shows projected increases for various types of customers.

Councilors also voted to extend the city’s assistance programs for utility ratepayers which allow homeowners to qualify for reduced payments based on income, or to receive one-time help with past-due bills. They authorized spending up to $300,000 toward those assistance programs in 2023.

“Our intent is to use every penny,” Fernandez said of the extension.

Use of the programs grew substantially during the pandemic after the city expanded eligibility criteria and spent more time advertising the programs.

As of June 30, 651 city customers were receiving discounts on bills due to income, according to a city report. From March 2020 through the end of June, another 310 had received one-time grants through the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency to pay past due bills through a federal program.

So far this year, the city has also provided one-time help to 940 customers who had a short-term need for help paying bills, spending about $136,000 on the program, according to a report.

The city also recently stopped charging a $25 fee to reconnect service for people who had their water service stopped due to nonpayment, Fernandez said, another measure that’s intended to assist low-income customers.

Residents can learn more about those programs or request help on the city website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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