Portland Residents Sue the City, Alleging Misuse of Ratepayer Dollars for Willamette River Clean-Up

The same law firm sued the city in 2011, alleging similar misuses.

The Willamette River. (Daniel Stindt)

In an effort to keep the Willamette River clean, the City of Portland and the state partnered to brainstorm a more efficient way to fund an 11-mile clean up project along the river.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Environmental Services settled upon creating a trust that is partially funded by sewer ratepayer funds. The trust would support the 150 companies that are responsible for the river clean-up.

But two longterm critics of city spending allege that Commissioner Fish and the Bureau of Environmental Services are unfairly putting the burden of the clean-up on sewer ratepayers—and that the trust isn't appropriately related to sewer usage. Kent Craford and Floy Jones sued the city on July 15.

"Why are we paying for that?" says John DiLorenzo, the attorney representing the two Portland residents in the lawsuit. It was filed July 15 in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

The residents' specific objection is that the city is unfairly transferring the burden of the clean-up fund on the shoulders of ratepayers. Their law firm alleges that $12 million of the trust will be backfilled by the sewer funds—which increased in July 2018 by 2.35 percent. (According to the city the increase would raise the average sewer bill for a single-family residence by a little less than two dollars per month.)

City Attorney Karen Moynahan responds that the firm was mistaken about the $12 million burden falling solely on residents paying the sewer funds, and explained other funding mechanisms the city plans to use. She wrote in a letter addressed to the firm, "You are mistaken that that the sewer fund will be the sole source of those funds. Specifically, the settlement funds will be paid over a period of up to eight years" from a combination of taxpayer dollars and dollars from the city's general fund.

This isn't the first time the law firm has sued the city over sewer funds.

They filed a lawsuit in 2011 alleging that the city performed "unauthorized expenditures" from the monies collected from sewer ratepayer funds. The case was settled in 2017, and the City paid for the firm's $3 million worth of legal fees and transferred $7 million back into the water and sewer budgets.

DiLorenzo says the city also promised to reallocate how the river clean-up funds would be divided up between parties once the Environmental Protection Agency provided its remediation plan for the clean-up.

John DiLorenzo tells WW the city never fulfilled its promise to reallocate the burden. The EPA provided its remediation plan roughly a year and a half ago.

"They cannot tell us when that will occur. So I'm going to hopefully pin them down," DiLorenzo says. "They made us a promise, and we haven't forgotten it. And I'm thinking they don't intend to keep it."

But Fish's office is defending the funding mechanism. "The strategy both pools and caps the public agencies' financial commitments for this phase of the work and offers greater certainty and significantly lower risk and cost," the statement read.

Fish said in the statement that "I'm disappointed that—again—Portlanders will be asked to foot the bill for an unfounded lawsuit."

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