Portland's Water Bureau Lists Reservoir Covers on eBay, Bids Itself, Then Balks

Sept. 21, 2004

When the Portland City Council voted in July to ditch its plan to cover the reservoirs in Washington Park and Mount Tabor, it left a dilemma: what to do with two custom-made covers and related hardware the Portland Water Bureau had already purchased for $398,000?

When the Portland City Council voted in July to ditch its plan to cover the reservoirs in Washington Park and Mount Tabor, it left a dilemma: what to do with two custom-made covers and related hardware the Portland Water Bureau had already purchased for $398,000?

According to a recent story in The Oregonian, the bureau decided to sell them on eBay, and it contacted the state surplus property program to list the items for auction earlier this month.

However, at the close of bidding on eBay Thursday, the highest offer for the whole package was a mere $18,100 to an anonymous bidder. So the city balked, rejecting the bid.

Turns out the bidding apparently was an inside job. Today it was revealed that several Portland Water Bureau employees apparently banded together under the eBay username "1trueseeker" and cast the winning bid.

Why they bid on the very covers they were selling is unclear, and so far those involved have not come forward.

Morteza Anoushiravani, chief of the 550-employee bureau, told The Oregonian he is investigating the bidding. He added that although it is legal for city employees to bid on items in a public auction, he needs to find out whether they did so on city time.

Back in 2002, the city council decided to bury the three reservoirs at Mount Tabor and float covers on the two reservoirs at Washington Park, at an estimated cost of $77 million.

However, opposition around Washington Park and Mount Tabor got organized with rallies, websites and lawsuits, citing aesthetics, effectiveness, cost and impact on water purity as their reasons.

Meanwhile, the Water Bureau, overseen by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, moved forward anyway. In mid-2003, the bureau hired a local contractor to custom-make covers for the Washington Park reservoirs. The contractor used a specially formulated brand of chlorosulfonated polyethylene called Hypalon. The contractor assembled panels of the plastic to fit the two reservoirs–one measuring 115,000 square feet, the other 106,000 square feet.

By October 2003, the Water Bureau was ready to have them installed. But about that time, Saltzman began to yield to the activists' pressure. He asked the bureau to hold off on installation. He formed a citizen-review board.

While the citizens deliberated, the rolled-up cover segments lined the banks of the reservoir like giant rolls of toilet paper waiting to unfurl.

On May 11, the citizen-review board came back with a clear decision: Abort the project since the cost outweighs the benefit. On July 28, the council decided to accept the panel's advice.

Instead, the council voted to improve security around the reservoirs and do some deferred maintenance using $6.2 million that will come out of the bureau's existing capital funds. In addition, the council authorized adding security staff, using $392,000 that is part of a 1.2 percent rate increase approved earlier, Campbell said.

That and other rate increases, along with increases to pay for sewer expansion, have given Portland ratepayers some of the highest combined water and sewer bills in the nation.

The city is also waiting for direction from the EPA about what is required for water supply safety and may revisit the notion of covering the reservoirs. But the bureau decided it couldn't wait for the EPA to decide the covers' fate.

Their shelf-life while rolled up is limited, Campbell said, and if they aren't serving their intended use, the warranties will expire–risking a total loss of resale value.

Source: The Oregonian

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