Fish, who’s up for re-election, is fighting a second battle on the May ballot. He’s the most public opponent of an initiative that would wrest control of Portland’s water and sewer utilities away from City Hall.
The business supporters of a new public water district point to steep rate increases and City Hall spending of utility funds on projects with little relation to water and sewer improvements.
The water district’s independent board would be elected by voters, but Fish—who since last June has overseen the city’s Water and Environmental Services bureaus—says the district’s structure would let corporate interests unload their share of Superfund and other environmental costs. Proponents, in turn, have made Fish a target of their campaign.
Fish visited WW offices this week to discuss the measure more frankly than he ever has before.
WW: You have said this ballot initiative is a conspiracy of corporate polluters. Who do you mean?
Nick Fish: I didn’t use those exact words, but it is fair to pull back the curtain and say, “Who is leading this fight?” There are four people: John DiLorenzo, who is a corporate lobbyist. Kent Craford, who is a corporate lobbyist. Siltronic, which is a [silicon] wafer company that is on the verge of leaving Portland, and uses a lot of water in its production. And Portland Bottling Co. It is fair to ask: How do they gain if this thing goes forward?
What’s your theory?
This is basically a Trojan horse bait-and-switch. Ride this anti-government wave, create a furor over some ill-advised decisions of the City Council, and change the game by switching back to taxpayers what would be the responsibility of ratepayers.
This initiative would be the single largest transfer of [financial] liabilities from the water and sewer bureaus to the general fund—and Portland taxpayers—in history.
What is the nature of your conversations with these companies?
If you look in the dictionary under the word “chutzpah,” you’d find that Siltronic would be a good example. This city rolled out the red carpet to bring Siltronic to our community. The payoff for all of this public investment that totals in the millions? They are down to about 350 jobs, no new investments, and they all but told us that they expect to be in Tennessee in the next few years.
Portland Bottling told us the same story.
The mayor and I said, “We would love to keep you in Portland.”
So did they take you up on that?
No. The first communication we got back was insults we read in the press.
Is there any element of their criticism that has any merit?
Absolutely. I call them self-inflicted wounds. In government, symbols matter and when you do dumb things, they become symbols. People assume that if you do that, you are likely to do other things. And where we have lost trust with ratepayers in this city is doing things that appear to be outside the scope of what our utilities and water should be focused on.
Why should we believe those are aberrations rather than deeper problems?
Let’s look at what I’ve done since the mayor asked me to lead these utilities. For two years in a row, we will come in at proposed rate increases that are about 50 percent of forecast rates. We got there by making tough choices and pushing off capital spending.
Why can’t you just keep water and sewer rates flat?
Charlie Hales the candidate talked about lowering rates. Charlie Hales the mayor, when he got the utilities and ran them for five months, learned that you can’t do so without doing violence to the system.
It sounds good in the abstract to say, “Let’s lower rates.” But look at what rates pay for. We’re faced with an aging system, and old pipes that break, [and] the need to comply with unfunded federal mandates.
You brought in rate increases half of what was forecast. Where did you find savings?
I had [the Water Bureau] take a 2.5 percent cut in the operating budget, which means layoffs of employees and cuts in programs. On the Bureau of Environmental Services side, we cut some programs that are near and dear to some of our friends in the environmental movement.
Your opponents have come into our offices and given you nasty nicknames, such as Nick “Jelly” Fish. Why are you their poster boy?
From their point of view, they have always had a villain and perhaps they think it helps their cause. But it is not about me. The people who are going to get screwed by this effort are ordinary people in Portland.
There is an old expression in the law, that if you have the facts on your side, you pound the facts; and if you have the law on your side, you pound the law; and if you don’t have the facts or the law, you pound the table. These guys are great at pounding the table.