Million-Dollar Water Park

A visitors' center and caretaker's house soak ratepayers for $1.1 million at a new underground reservoir.

The $456,000 water caretaker's house on Powell Butte was built by California-based SSC Construction to resemble a historic dairy farmhouse.

Kevin Duff has a view any Portlander would envy—and one that's warming up the already heated battle over the future of the city's Water Bureau.  

On a clear morning, Duff can sit on the wraparound front porch of a brand-new two-bedroom home and take in vistas of three mountains: Mount Hood to the east, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams to the north. 

"It's a view I'd never be able to afford if I didn't have this job," Duff says. "If I want the job, I have to live here. Poor me.” 

Duff doesn't own any of what he surveys. Instead, he's just moved into a $456,000 house on top of Powell Butte, paid for by the Portland Water Bureau. Duff is caretaker of the nature park and the $82 million underground reservoir currently under construction on the butte, located near Southeast 162nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard.  

A hundred yards down the hill is a $590,000 visitors' center: a solar-roofed shed near a Benson Bubbler water fountain with a drinking dish for dogs.  

The total price tag of $1.1 million for the 1,527-square-foot house, the visitors' center and landscaping falls on the city's water ratepayers. The Portland City Council approved the project more than two years ago. But with Duff settling in and the visitors' center set to open next month, the buildings are debuting as showcases of undisciplined Water Bureau spending, even as utility rates rise.

That's like gasoline—not water—on the fire for businesses and activists launching an initiative campaign to wrest control of the city's water and sewer bureaus from City Hall next year.  

"It's an affront to common sense," says Kent Craford, co-petitioner for the initiative to create a public water district. "It should stand as a symbol of City Hall’s dysfunctional management of our water utilities.” 

Faced with a political fight for control of Portland's utilities, Commissioner Nick Fish has begun cutting costs across the two bureaus, which he oversees. Earlier this month, Fish put the manufactured home where Duff previously lived on the market for $13,499. 

Fish, who voted to approve the Powell Butte project in April 2011, declined to comment for this story.   

Commissioner Amanda Fritz cast the only vote against the project—and questioned the cost of "a really nice house."

Water Bureau officials say Powell Butte reservoir planners—led by contractor CH2M Hill—were compelled by land-use rules to include the buildings. Powell Butte is the second-largest park in Portland behind Forest Park, and serves the low-income neighborhoods at the easternmost edge of the city.

"We spent six months working with the public on these facilities," says Water Bureau spokesman Tim Hall. "The Water Bureau did what we could to honor what the public wanted."

Now that it's finished, project supervisors for the Water Bureau say the house is solid and reflects Portland's values: It's energy efficient, built from materials like a recycled high-school gym floor, and able to withstand snow and ice storms.  

"It's built hell-bent for stout," says Rick Lapp, a Water Bureau project manager at Powell Butte. "It seems a little overbuilt, but it needs to stand the test of time.” 

The visitors' center includes a giant map of the city's water system, a stone amphitheater, and displays on Native American tribes who once hunted on Powell Butte.  

Craford scoffs at opening an educational exhibit at an underground reservoir.  

“Are there going to be re-enactments there?” he asks. “Maybe they can re-enact pouring the concrete.” 

Duff, who makes $49,982 a year at the Water Bureau, says his job includes opening and closing the park's gates, eradicating invasive species of weeds, picking up syringes, and confronting rule breakers. 

"It's usually just a knucklehead with a BB gun, and I go and talk to 'em," Duff says. "People have learned you can’t get away with stuff here.” 

He says the Water Bureau is saving money by building a high-quality home.  

"It's smart to stop just throwing money away on cheap structures and build something that can last,” he says. “This house is going to be here forever.”   

WWeek 2015

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