Water rate increases on tap

The $2.3 million project to refurbish South Dundas’ two water towers is well underway in Iroquois. The tender awarded in 2020 to JDCMI, will be completed by October 31, 2021. (The Leader/Blancher photo)

MORRISBURG – Residents connected to the Williamsburg sewer system will be seeing a five dollar increase to their annual bill, but for all other water and sewer users in South Dundas – it’s complicated.

South Dundas staff were sent back to the drawing board after last week’s water and sewer budget meeting.

At the April 8th meeting municipal staff presented council with a budget that proposes a 23 cent per cubic meter capital levy rate increase plus a $15/month flat rate water increase plus a matching $15 sewer rate increase for Iroquois and Morrisburg water and sewer users.

All that added together was in council’s opinion too big a hit all at once.

The hit under the rejected staff proposal represented an even bigger change for those connected to the Morrisburg system because those sewer charges have traditionally been 75 per cent of the water charges.

Staff suggested that Morrisburg sewer charges increase from 75 per cent of the water charges to 100 per cent of the water charges.

South Dundas mayor Steven Byvelds explained that the number of users on the Morrisburg system meant that the users didn’t have to pay as much per user to cover the cost of operating the system. “It was a way of balancing the reserves that were being accumulated in Morrisburg,” he said.

But now staff now want that extra 25 per cent to be collected to pay for infrastructure expansion, including the Dutch Meadows pumping station needed for the new housing development taking place just west of Steward Drive in Morrisburg.

South Dundas treasurer Sarah McMillan said that South Dundas debt levels are getting high and that careful consideration needs to be given before adding any more debt.

“That $30 a month increase is going to hit people really, really hard,” said South Dundas deputy mayor Kirsten Gardner.

“We’ve said all along that growth should pay for growth,” said Gardner, later adding: “I don’t like this switcheroo. We’ve said all along that growth would pay for growth and then we have this.”

“We’re in a shutdown. A lot of businesses are closed. A lot of people don’t have work, and now they’re getting hit with this? We’ve got to think of the people in business and the residents too. It’s okay if we need a bit, but not all of it,” said South Dundas councillor Lloyd Wells.

He too talked about his understanding that council had already agreed to increasing connection fees so that growth would pay for growth. “We increased that, because we knew this was coming,” said Wells.

“You are right, but we need the money now to pay for it,” said McMillan. “We’re not leveraging any more debt, so if we don’t do this, we will have to find an alternative.”

“This is not the way I thought we were going to do this. We were going to borrow the money and pay it back using the connection fees as they come in,” reiterated Wells.

“I agree with my colleague,” said South Dundas councillor Donald Lewis. “It was always our intention to borrow the money and pay it back over time. We are in a stay at home order. I don’t agree with a $30 monthly increase. People are barely surviving now. I’d rather borrow the money than do this. If we do this, the people who are just surviving now won’t be.”

“I’d sooner see this phased in, taking it out of reserves even if it depleted them dangerously low,” said South Dundas councillor Archie Mellan. “We have to crunch some numbers to phase this in.”

“But we’re not guaranteed a certain number of connections per year, that’s the problem with funding through connections,” said Danielle Watson, director of environmental services, who presented much of this budget.

“I am not happy with this at all,” said Mayor Byvelds. “I am strongly opposed to having just the users of Morrisburg paying for this (Dutch Meadows pumping station). It’s totally unfair. I understand that debt levels are scarily high, but to turn this one around at this point is not fair.”

“We have to come up with some other way of financing this,” added Byvelds suggesting that the Rideau St. Lawrence money is available to borrow from, which can be paid back with interest.

“Staff has to come back with a better report,” said Byvelds. “We have to be fair to the users. I will not vote for a budget that has an increase just for this.”

Gardner added a reminder for staff: “This council came on board playing catch-up, with all these massive projects with massive price tags. We can’t do everything all at once.”

“I want staff to have a firm look at the mayor’s proposal,” she added.

Council agreed.

“I would rather borrow the RSL money than see the ratepayer paying for something they can’t afford right now,” said Lewis.

When pressed for more specifics on the effect of the proposed changes on the average customer, deputy treasurer Shawn Mason estimated the total increase at about 14 per cent for customers in Morrisburg and less for Iroquois users.

(The Leader later double checked this estimation with the treasurer and found the 14 per cent estimate was in fact an error. “The $15 a month increase on the water rate is a 42 per cent increase,” confirmed McMillan.)

“An increase of 10-15 per cent is too much all at once,” repeated Byvelds. Watson cautioned council that healthy reserves are a requirement of the province and Byvelds quickly told Watson that those are guidelines.

“People are not flush with money and we need to understand that,” he added.

“Our residents are struggling,” said Gardner. “We cannot raise rates to the point where people are having to choose between paying their water bill and buying milk, especially during a pandemic.”

Sending staff back to the drawing board, council agreed that they were amenable to the $15 water flat rate increase and the 23 cent per cubic meter capital levy increase. “Council is good with the water charges as presented. We need to make the sewer charges work better,” said Byvelds.

The most straightforward discussion of the meeting concerned the Williamsburg sewer system. Users will see a $5 increase to their yearly sewer charge taking it from $175 to $180.

For Morrisburg and Iroquois service customers, they can expect to see their monthly bills increase by at least $15, but will have to wait for council to hold a second water sewer budget meeting to learn how much more than that $15 monthly increase they can expect to see on their utility bills.

That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

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