The City Council’s aggressive decision a couple of years ago to start raising local water rates was not welcomed news to Philomath residents. A lot of folks were already living on tight household budgets and it’s become even tighter over the past year through the financial fallout connected to the pandemic.
But the town sorely needed a new water treatment plant with the current facility several years beyond its life expectancy. The city needed to build up revenue to make sure it could pay the debt service on a new loan. Still, it’s always a tough pill to swallow when you see higher balances on your utility bills.
If you haven’t heard, the water rates might be going back down thanks to a $12 million grant awarded to Philomath through an appropriations bill that cleared the State Legislature. Millions of dollars in federal funds that Oregon received from the American Rescue Plan Act were distributed for various needs around the state, including water infrastructure projects.
The city saved $4 million and with the $12 million coming in from the grant, the entire $16 million project will be paid for in full.
City Manager Chris Workman deserves a lot of credit for making all of this happen. The city had anticipated paying for the project through the low-interest Safe Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund program through Business Oregon. But with the pandemic forcing that program to a screeching half, new options had to be considered. The city did have a backup plan through another loan, also with a fairly low interest rate, but Workman decided in May to reach out to State Rep. Dan Rayfield’s office.
A project summary sheet with specific dollar amounts provided by Workman proved to be one of the keys of the Philomath project being approved. In these types of situations when the wheels of our State Legislature are rolling at a high rate of speed, having a shovel-ready project likely was the difference. Once Rayfield’s staff had the information in hand, everything fell into place.
Earlier this month, the Philomath News had an opportunity to interview Rayfield (D-Corvallis), who serves District 16. To help put the situation in perspective, Rayfield offered a broad explanation of how our local water treatment plant project made sense for this money.
Oregon received a significant amount of federal assistance, he said, and part of the state’s big focus was shoring up budgets and making investments in different areas, such as wildfire assistance, housing and behavioral health. But water also entered the picture.
“One of the things that never gets enough attention, frankly, is water,” Rayfield said. “This is a resource in terms of quantity and quality that we never really pay attention to unless there’s a significant problem.”
Think Flint, Michigan. Although nothing that serious has come our way, smaller communities like Philomath do need to figure out ways to pay for large infrastructure projects “where to accomplish them, they would burden the tax base disproportionately to serve them.”
The Ways and Means Committee tackled the issue knowing that the ARCA money was coming and so a water package found its way onto the table in the now-completed session.
“When you do water packages, you’re creating jobs. You’re also keeping taxing lower in communities by not burdening that tax base with a multimillion dollar infrastructure upgrade,” Rayfield said. “So a part of what we did is we did significant water quality investments … we did significant water quantity infrastructure assessments, and then we also did brick-and-mortar-type projects.”
As a co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Rayfield was in a great position to be able to help Philomath’s project along.
“This was something that fit perfectly into the state’s water infrastructure proposals, which across the state, we made infrastructure investments in water to more than $350 million,” Rayfield said. “In terms of the uses of the federal money, this was a use that was sanctioned, if you will, in the early rule-making process by the federal government.”
The State Legislature typically looks at water infrastructure projects for communities every two years, Rayfield said, but this year included an extremely robust package.
“It’s exciting because you know in the community that we live in, it’s not just a small impact, a one-time impact, this is an impact on a monthly basis in terms of water bills that will go on for a long period of time,” Rayfield said when asked about any personal satisfaction he may have felt in connection to a project that will benefit Philomath residents and businesses. “When you accomplish something like this, you get excited about it, that’s why you run for office. It’s about community building. Our whole office was thrilled with this.”
Rayfield does have a direct connection to Philomath through Jack Lehman, who serves as his communications director. So I had to ask, does he have more knowledge than ever about Philomath?
“We’re always trying to find ways to engage in Philomath, but it’s challenging in terms of — it feels like there’s less opportunity,” Rayfield explained. “So when this came along, this was really a tangible, concrete thing that we could do to make a difference in a community that often is very quiet in a lot of ways.”
Another project included in the package was $10.5 million to Corvallis to help rebuild sections of the Rock Creek intertie, a water transmission system that serves as a backup source for Philomath.
“That came in under the wire at the very end of the session as we were continuing to look at different projects,” Rayfield said.
The Rock Creek project comes in with a price tag of $21 million for the city of Corvallis.
“That is a huge chunk of money that absolutely will need to be undertaken at some point, so to be able to get half of that money with the city being able to match the other half will make another big difference in the long run,” Rayfield said.
With the session over, Rayfield said he’s lightening the load on his staff with the goal of allowing them to relax a little this summer. I had asked him if he had any town halls or other interactions with his constituents planned for the near future now that pandemic restrictions have disappeared.
“We have work to do and we’ll take a little bit of time off here and there. I think what our hope is that while the weather’s still nice to get outside, maybe do a couple of community coffees and just check in,” Rayfield said. “Provide people with at least one person’s insight into what occurred during the session but then also just listen to other things that are going on that during a busy session, we may not have been aware of. I know we’re in the process of trying to set some of those things up.”
(Brad Fuqua is publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected]).