By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A legislative budget writing committee has advanced a bill giving the Oregon Water Resources Department authority to raise water right transaction fees 2 percent annually, or more if inflation warrants.
The bill, advanced by the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Natural Resources June 10, also includes an initial fee increase of 13 percent, an increase that will kick in upon approval by the Oregon Water Resources Commission.
The commission is scheduled to next meet in August, but could meet earlier to initiate the fee increase, department Director Phil Ward said.
Under House Bill 2259, subsequent annual increases -- capped at 2 percent or at the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater -- also must be approved by the commission.
The bill is expected to raise about $500,000 a year for the department, providing about half the salary and support cost for the department's 16-person water-rights transaction division.
"These fees don't grow the program," Ward said. "All they do is allow us to keep up with the cost increases that have occurred since 2009. And it allows us to make modest annual increases after that."
The subcommittee also June 10 advanced to the full Ways and Means Committee a department budget of $53.3 million.
The budget is a slight increase over the $51.6 million legislatively approved 2011-13 budget, and increases staff from 144 in the current biennium to 154 in 2013-15.
The budget includes $27.2 million in general funds, up from $20.6 million in 2011-13; $10.6 million in fees; and $13.6 million in grants for advancing water supply development projects.
An additional $10 million in lottery-backed loans for water supply development could be made available by the state, but is not included in the department's budget bill.
The budget also includes $750,000 in grant funds for funding new water supply development feasibility studies.
Ward characterized the budget as "a good solid budget."
"It provides some strategic enhancements that will help us do our job better," he said.
Ward said lawmakers generally backed the governor's recommended budget, with some adjustments.
Lawmakers, for example, added $60,000 to Gov. John Kitzhaber's recommendation to put $40,000 into the department's cost-share fund for water measurement devices.
The fund helps water users install water measurement devices by paying a portion of the costs.
Lawmakers, conversely, scrapped a controversial new water right management fee that the department estimated would have generated $5 million annually once fully implemented.