PORTLAND, Ore. – On a clear day, there’s a stunning panoramic view from the front porch of the beautiful brand new house on Powell Butte.
The view is free, but you paid $456,000 for that house.
Critics of the Portland Water Bureau are irate about the 1,500 square foot, two-story farmhouse that is home to the Portland Water Bureau employee who takes care of the Powell Butte Reservoir and Nature Park.
“The one thing we know - there will be somebody here who can contact police, and have them here if there is an incident,” said Water Bureau spokesman Tim Hall.
The Water Bureau says the house makes sense because the caretaker is busy, tending to a park that sees 100,000 visitors a year. He works on trails, tends sensitive plants and takes care of the visitor’s center, which itself cost $590,000.
Where did all that money come from? The budget for the bureau’s new underground reservoir nearby, which will be operational in December and came with a price tag of $80 million.
Critics of the frequently controversial Water Bureau see a lot not to like.
“It's just another example of lack of oversight and excessive spending on the part of the Water Bureau,” said Floy Jones of Portlanders for Water Reform. “They could have built a house for half that cost - half that cost. Yet, because we're using other people's money and it's boys with toys, they built the most luxurious home that one could imagine."
Jones’ group is behind a proposed initiative to end the city’s control of the water system and give power to an independent water district. It thinks the city has a history of spending water money carelessly.
Here’s the twist: The Water Bureau says it had no say in building the new house.
“This is something the public required the Water Bureau to do,” Hall said. “This was not something where the Water Bureau said ‘We need to build a house and we need to build this house.’”
The house was approved two years ago by the city council. Tamra Dickinson, who is part of a citizen’s advisory group called Friends of Powell Butte, said she’s been pushing for a visitor’s center and a better caretaker’s house for years.
She says her group asked the public to get involved.
"“We advertised and advertised, we posted everywhere," she said. "I personally walked through Powell Butte and thumb tacked pieces of paper to posts saying please come to these public meetings.”
And the critics?
“They don't fully understand the job of the caretaker, and what that job requires,” she said. “It's not just relaxing in your house. It's interrupting drug deals in the parking lot or calling Portland police or dealing with a poacher, or dealing with a lost kid."
“One time there was a lost horse up there.”
Plans to replace the dilapidated mobile home that used to house the caretaker - a double-wide that was purchased for $79,950 in 2007, by the way - were approved amid fireworks from Portland city council members Randy Leonard and Amanda Fritz.
A sample exchange from their debate:
Fritz: “What are we buying for $460,000?”
Water Bureau administrator David Shaff: “Just that, a house.”
Fritz: “A nice house. How about what are we buying … ”
Leonard: “I think that's uncalled for. If you want to ask questions that are professional and have answers, I appreciate that. But question that are impugning the bureaus integrity or anybody else is uncalled for and that's playing to the audience.”
Fritz: “I don't comment on your behavior, and I would appreciate the same courtesy.”
It’s certainly not the first controversial project for the Water Bureau; in fact, it’s not even the first controversial house.
A $950,000 house in Northeast Portland built to demonstrate conservation ideas went on the market for $475,000 in August after drawing 2,500 visitors in its two-year history.
"I don't think you can compare the two,” Hall said. “That was a demonstration project. This is a permanent structure, where it won't be sold in a year or two.”
So, how much does the caretaker’s new house cost? About $1 per customer, the bureau said. That'll go along with a series of rate increases over the next five years: 3.6 percent in 2014; 7.5 percent in 2015; 12.8 percent in 2016; 9 percent in 2017; 8.8 percent in 2018; and 7.6 percent in 2019.
The Water Bureau says rates often increase by less than proposed. In 2014, they were going to increase by 14 percent, but in reality they will go increase3.6 percent.
Portlanders for Water Reform say they have about half of the 30,000 signatures they’ll need by late January to get their initiative on the ballot.