Oregon Cities

Ashland resident wants voters to decide on $75 million loan approved by city council

Dean Silver wants residents to have a say on a $75 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency to replace Ashland’s 76-year-old water treatment plant. On Tuesday, Silver received approval from the city recorder’s office to collect signatures for his petition. If he gets enough, it would likely go up for a vote in November.

The Ashland plaza in 2023. An Ashland resident initiated a petition to bring the city's $75 million water treatment plant loan to a public vote, arguing that residents should have a say in financial decisions.

The Ashland plaza in 2023. An Ashland resident initiated a petition to bring the city’s $75 million water treatment plant loan to a public vote, arguing that residents should have a say in financial decisions.

Roman Battaglia / JPR

“Then we’ll have a good six months for everybody to talk about the basic issue which is: should the city spend that kind of money on the kind of water treatment plant that’s been proposed?” he said.

The new water treatment plant would replace the aging plant, which is susceptible to flooding and doesn’t incorporate the latest filtration technology to adapt to changing water conditions, such as toxic algae blooms.

Silver argues the City Council shouldn’t spend such a large amount of money without voter approval. The loan would be paid back through increases on water bills over the next four years.

Public Works Director Scott Fleury said Ashland isn’t the only community that needs to raise its rates to cover major projects.

“The Medford Water Commission has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of capital infrastructure investment that they have programmed and planned for the next 10 years,” said Fleury.

Fleury said the city has tried to reduce costs on this new water treatment plant. In 2019, it was estimated to cost $35.9 million. But inflation in the construction industry has increased those estimates.

He said Ashland is working on expanding its low-income assistance program to help people who would be most affected by a series of 10% rate increases over the next four years to pay for the project. The expansion would remove the age requirement for the program, which currently applies to low-income individuals who are 65 years and older.

Fleury said the loan from the EPA works similar to a credit limit. The city would be approved to borrow up to $75 million, but only has to pay back what it borrows. The new water treatment plant is currently estimated to cost $55-70 million. The loan comes from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, a federal program to provide long-term, low-cost loans for water infrastructure projects.

The number of signatures Silver needs and the deadline for his petition are unclear, as there are conflicting laws around the process. A state law requires 5% of residents to sign the petition, while a city ordinance requires 10%. The city recorder’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

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