Water, sewer rates for Couchiching in dispute

The Town of Fort Frances, Couchiching First Nation, and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) sat down at the table last Thursday to start hammering out a new agreement for water and sewer services to the reserve.
Richard Earl, capital management officer with the INAC office in Thunder Bay, said yesterday the talks stemmed from the fact that the water and sewage service agreements between the department and the town elapsed in the last decade—and Couchiching has been paying escalating rates ever since.
“Somewhere along the way, the town asked for a capital contribution from Couchiching First Nation to help pay for the water infrastructure,” Earl noted. “But there was no agreement on the share and the town unilaterally raised rates for water.
“In the mid-’90s, the same thing happened with sewage.
“For a long period of time, there’s been a disagreement with the capital contribution and excessive user fees.
“In 1998, there was an effort to get into a new agreement and these went on for a while. But in 2001, negotiations ceased,” added Earl.
“The town has continued to raise user fees.”
He said INAC has been called back to the table by Couchiching because it is funding the reserve to pay for water and sewer at rates under the old agreement, which were “substantially less than what the town is charging.”
Earl said the aim of the talks that began last week is to come to a new agreement for water and sewer services, as well as settle a capital contribution from Couchiching.
“I’m sure there will be a new agreement between all parties, and it will end up being for the benefit of all involved,” he remarked.
Couchiching Chief Chuck McPherson could not be reached for comment prior to press time as he was out of town.
But speaking on his behalf, Christine Jourdain, economic development officer for Couchiching, said yesterday that “Chuck is willing to work with them and get the matter resolved in an expedient manner.”
“We don’t want to take an enormous amount of time with this. We want to keep the partnership going,” Jourdain added. “We want to come to an agreement that will be beneficial for both parties.”
Jourdain noted the current system of funding from INAC leaves Couchiching footing some bills. For example, if a home on the reserve has a water and sewer bill of $50 per month, INAC pays for $38 of it while the resident has to pay the other $12.
If that resident doesn’t pay that amount, the band still is left owning it to the Town of Fort Frances.
Mayor Dan Onichuk said he was confident the town, INAC, and Couchiching eventually could come to an agreement, but wasn’t so sure the town has been in the wrong.
“Right now, we’re in the process of negotiating a new agreement with Indian Affairs. However, Indian Affairs felt the First Nations have been overcharged. At least, that was their opening position,” he noted.
“Our position was that they haven’t been.
“We’re not in a partnership with them. They’re customers. If you don’t want the T-shirt, don’t buy it,” Mayor Onichuk remarked.
Couchiching, just as all properties outside town limits that receive services from the Town of Fort Frances, currently pays double the average cost per cubic meter for water or sewage.
Between 2003 and 2004, the rates have gone up considerably. The 2003 rate for sewer service was $1.61 per cubic metre while this year it was raised to $2.08 per cubic metre.
Likewise, water rates increased from $1.35 per cubic metre in 2003 to $2.35 per cubic metre in 2004.