As of Monday night, the typical city resident’s water bill is going up 10 per cent, according to the memo from the city manager. I’d advise you to compare your bills when a new one comes, however; mine will be up 13.5 per cent, by my calculations, and that’s just in the first year of a four-year plan.
Our city water bills have been the subject of so many changes over the past few years that it would be no wonder if people were confused, and apt to accept whatever City Hall says. For something that could be pretty simple -- how much water goes through the meter multiplied by a set rate equals the total -- it’s become very complicated.
One of the reasons for the complication is the decision by city council about 10 year ago to make the water and sewer services a self-funding utility. I must admit, I was a part of that council, and I recall saying to the then city manager that this change was just another way of taxing people and shouldn’t be done. He smiled, as if to say, “of course it is,” and it was so. Taxes were, in essence, shifted from the mill rate to the water rate.
As a self-funding utility, the water, sewer and sanitation (garbage and recycling) services are expected to bring in enough money to pay their own way. That’s a fine thought, in theory, since those who use services should pay for them; however, it’s a theory that’s not practised in any other part of city financing. If you think you’re paying the full price to use a city recreational facility, think again. If other city services were expected to be fully self-funding, virtually no one could afford to use them. That’s why we all contribute to toward these costs through our taxes, to make the services affordable and accessible.
And what are the real costs of the utility? Is it just the processing of water, treatment of sewage, and pick up of garbage? Here again, it’s complicated. Costs such as the city engineer’s time, work done by finance to accept bill payments, repairing streets when water mains have to be dug up, etc., etc. are added on rather arbitrarily, to the tune of $600,000 that flows from the water utility to the city’s general fund. Essentially, these are costs that would have to be incurred anyway, but are now paid through the water bill instead of through taxation.
What about funds that might flow the other way? Don’t city facilities use water, for which they should contribute back to the utility in order to have a true picture of costs? Clearly, city facilities use water and sewer services, but they are not billed for them, which again artificially inflates the utility’s costs. It also obscures the real usage numbers. The city report says 35 per cent of our treated water is unaccounted for. If you had a business and 35 per cent of your stock went missing in a year, wouldn’t you figure out where it was going and do something about it?
Add to the mix the concept of a legislated monopoly -- only the city can provide water to residents, and residents by law must be connected to the water and sewer system -- and you’ve got a means to hose people under the guise of user pay.
Beyond the complicated nature of deciding what costs the water user should bear, my biggest problem with our water billing system is that it disproportionately affects the small-volume user. That is why my bill is set to increase more than the hypothetical average user in the council report, who uses 2.5 times as much the real users at our house. We have only two people living in our home. We try to save water, and for that we are penalized. The reason is that the actual usage of water, and sewer services calculated from water usage, are only a small portion of the total bill. Water capital works, sewer capital works, and sanitation are fixed costs regardless of usage. So if you are a pensioner living alone, no matter how little water you use, you still are paying those same costs other homes. And that means your water bill is going up more than 10 per cent – this year. By the time the four-year plan is in place, the average user will be paying $400 more per year.
Charging people based on the usage of a valuable resource is reasonable, and has a logical consequence: use a lot of water -- or gas or electricity -- and you have a big bill. Conserve, and save money. If only a fraction of the bill represents consumption, however, the incentive, and ability, to save is diminished.
Having a portion of the water system costs, such as capital costs, carried by general taxation would leave the water bill simplified. It would also say something about how important our water system is. There is no function of city operations that is more essential than clean water. Incidents ranging from the local boil-water order of last year, to North Battleford’s experience of a few years ago, to Walkerton, and on and on, make the point that we need to have a water supply we can trust. Of all the things we pay taxes for, safety is the number one need and that means health, as well as police and fire protection. Everything else is just nice to have.
Playing a shell game of moving costs around and fiddling with rates again and again does nothing to deal with the real issues or costs; it just makes things complicated and unfair, especially for the person living alone and trying to make ends meet.
Barb Gustafson, a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, is a former reporter, editor and publisher at the Daily Herald.