Water meters could be coming down the pipe

Fort Frances residents likely will see meters to keep track of their water usage within five years.
The subject came up during a public meeting last Thursday night featuring Gary Scandlan of CN Watson & Associates.
He was at the Civic Centre to explain what kind of upgrades the town will have to undertake over the next 10 years—and the accompanying hike in sewer and water rates.
Prompted by questions from the public, Mayor Dan Onichuk said meters definitely will be looked at in the near future, adding it is fair (currently, a single person who uses less water than a family of four pays the same flat rate).
It also encourages conservation, he added, which not only means less water used, but less water that has to be treated by the town and thus a cost-savings.
But while some residents might want to see water meters installed, the mayor said such a changeover can’t happen overnight—and is an extensive undertaking.
“When you move to a metered system, you have to see what the average metered usage is to set prices,” he noted. “Most cities do it on a trial basis at first in order to establish those.
“I don’t see it as the highest priority for the town at this time,” Mayor Onichuk added, noting it would cost about $275 to buy and install a meter.
(Though part of the rationale behind the sewer and water rate increases is to build reserves to pay for the meters, as opposed to sticking ratepayers with a bill for $275 out of the blue).
“Every time you pay your sewer and water bill, you’re paying towards meters,” the mayor remarked. “When the time comes, we know the money will be there. But at what point in time that will be, it’s tough to say.
“We’ll have to see where we are on a year-to-year basis.”
But Mayor Onichuk also noted that once the town does start to phase in meters, multi-residential buildings likely will be the first to get them.
“I think we’ll see water meters in less than five years,” said Operations and Facilities manager Doug Brown.
He noted there’s no doubt water meters are a wise move, adding International Falls uses them—and residents there use only about half of what the people of Fort Frances do.
But like the mayor, Brown stressed the town first must use revenues to build up reserves, address current problems with its sewer and water system, “and come to a point where everyone has good quality water” before switching to water meters for all residents.
Scandlan noted Judge Dennis O’Connor stopped short of making water meters mandatory for all Ontarians after the E. coli tragedy in Walkerton five years ago.
But he added not only do meters create equity among ratepayers, they also can better help municipalities track water lost between its treatment phase and when it’s distributed to the customer—and fix the leaks.
CAO Mark McCaig noted the public’s input from this meeting would be taken into consideration during any future discussions of sewer and water rates, as well as water meters.
< *c>Rate increases
Due to changes in provincial legislation in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy, significant upgrades to the town’s sewer and water system must be done over the next decade.
As such, Scandlan unveiled a 10-year plan for the town to build up funds to pay the $13.4 million bill for these projects—a plan which could see residents facing annual increases to their sewer and water bills until 2014.
The first of these hikes—to be voted on by council at its June 27 meeting, and, if passed, come into effect July 1—will see the residential water rate jump from $28.92/month to $30.37 and the sewer rate go from $25.52/month to $25.54.
The flat commercial water rate will go from $38.12 to $49.17 per month while the flat commercial sewer rate will rise from $33.64 to $41.36.
The metered commercial rate for water will go up from $0.69/cubic metre to $0.89 while the metered rate for sewer will change from $0.61/cubic metre to $0.75.
This will be followed by a second increase in January, 2006, where water and sewer rates for residents will jump to $30.74 and $25.60, respectively, while flat commercial rates will increase to $60.77 and $49.08, respectively.
Metered commercial water and sewer rates will increase to $1.10/cubic metre and $0.89/cubic metre, respectively.
Town council only is looking at adopting rates for 2005 and 2006 at this time. But if it chooses to follow the 10-year fee schedule as it stands, ratepayers will see an overall increase of 67 percent for both sewer and water rates over the next decade.
This would result in the combined lifecycle reserves for sewer and water projects increasing each year—from $235,000 in 2006 to $2.1 million per year by 2014.
Scandlan stressed the 67 percent increase is lower than the average (80-90 percent) being implemented by other Ontario municipalities also upgrading their sewer and water systems.
Some even have had to hike fees by 300 percent.
“The worst thing we can do is nothing,” Mayor Onichuk said of the fee hikes, adding that acting now is all part of a long-term plan for sustainability.
He stressed that by gradually increasing the rates, and thus the town’s sewer and water reserves, the current council and administration is preventing a potential situation whereby a future council could be faced with an infrastructure crisis and forced to double ratepayers’ monthly bills without warning.
“This is a tough decision. The toughest decision this will council will ever have to make,” said McCaig.
“Don’t think that this isn’t done without consideration for residents’ ability to pay,” he added.
Scandlan was hired by the town back in February to examine how two new provincial laws—Bill 175 (Sustainable Water and Sewage System Act) and Bill 195 (Safe Water Drinking Act)—would impact rates here.
He explained Bill 195, which was passed in 2002, deals with new standards for water treatment, distribution and testing, and stronger enforcement and compliance of provisions.
Bill 175, on the other hand, has had a more direct impact on how Ontario municipalities, including Fort Frances, have to approach sustaining their water and sewer systems.
Essentially, municipalities submit two reports for provincial approval: one detailing the state of its sewer and water infrastructure, and how much it costs to provide services while maintaining that infrastructure.
The second details a full cost recovery plan, whereby the town must identify how it intends to pay for the full cost of providing those services, including budgeting for the full lifecycle of sewer and water piping, and other related infrastructure.
This means all residents across Ontario will have to pay to ensure that when a component of the sewer or water system in their respective municipality needs to be replaced, the municipality already has the money set aside to do so.
In order to prepare the aforementioned reports for the town, Scandlan conducted a study where he had to:
•identify all current and future water and wastewater system capital needs;
•identify cost recovery options for capital;
•estimate future operating costs over the next 10 years; and
•recommend new rates to recover the cost of the water and wastewater systems.
As a result of that study, Scandlan not only recommended council consider the aforementioned changes to sewer and water rates, but also:
•consider stop charging a separate water rate for private sprinklers;
•equalizing commercial rates with residential ones over the next five years; and
•for metered accounts, consider a minimum monthly charge of $10 each for sewer and water services.
This latter is to ensure even seasonal businesses/residents who aren’t in Fort Frances for months at a time consistently contribute to the system.