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Rural residents in Comox Valley upset about 'inequitable' water charges
Some residents in Lazo North (Area B) of the regional district are up in arms about considerably higher charges on mock water bills, as compared to other local jurisdictions.
If their mock bill is indicative of things to come, Wilkinson Road resident Ted Fortosky and his wife will pay $600 or $700 yearly, even though they don't have a garden to tend. Fortosky does not wash a car, but his wife has seven rain barrels.
He has a neighbour facing a possible $800 yearly fee, as per the mock bill.
Fortosky — who attended a recent regional district meeting about recommended water rates and results of a mock billing period — doesn't mind the idea of water meters but takes issue with the CVRD's formula for determining charges. The mock rate for rural residents is a minimum $304.08 per year, plus tiered charges for those who use more than 60,000 litres per four months.
"Everybody in the regional district pays about $435 per year, no matter how much they use. They want to change that," said Fortosky, noting Comox and Courtenay residents have no surcharge on flat water rates. "They have unlimited usage.
"Their (CVRD) system is inequitable because we are going to be paying more than people in Comox or Courtenay for the same water supply. In the CVRD, there's about 1,500 households. The number of people accessing Comox Lake water, I understand, is about 38,000. So we're only about 10 per cent of the users, and yet we're going to be paying a lot more."
Dave Mellin, a retiree who lives on Denny Road, says the average water rate in a Vancouver Island household is $250. In his 33 years in the Little River area, he said the rate has jumped from $180 to $435.
"The roughly 1,500 of us, we're getting absolutely hammered," said Mellin, whose mock bill shows a $750 charge. "How is it someone across the street (Comox or Courtenay resident) can pay less and they use all the water they want? It's not equitable…We are absolutely furious about this."
Marc Rutten, senior manager of engineering services, said the comparison is "not apples to apples" because Comox and Courtenay each operate their own water system and determine costs, as does the regional district.
Rutten added that only the top 50 or 100 customers of the 1,500 would receive an $800 or $900 yearly bill while the lowest users would pay less than $250 per year.
"The only reason their bill is so high is because they're using a humongous amount of water," Rutten said, noting leaks and high-flow toilets, for instance, can add to water bills. "The average bill is going to be the same as it always was, down in the $300 — $400 range."
More than half of CVRD residents receiving mock bills will pay less than the $435 annual fee they now pay, said Area B director Jim Gillis.
"We are trying to reduce the use of water by setting a scale that will put more cost on the high water users and those who use less water will be rewarded with a reduced water cost," Gillis said. "Reduce the use of water and we save on infrastructure."
Impending compliance with government-mandated 4,321 treatment directives means looming infrastructure costs for all water systems in the Valley, says CVRD board chair/Area C director Edwin Grieve. In addition to chlorination, installing UV treatment, a filtration plant and/or deep water intake will add tens of millions to the cost of delivering sanitized, potable water.
"How that cost pie is sliced begs the question: What is fair?" said Grieve, who feels a user-pay system is the only fair way to address the cost burden.
"The high water users want the status quo to be maintained," Gillis said. "That will allow them to use as much water as they want with impunity and the low water users will be the ones who will subsidize their use. It is not right and it is not fair."
Grieve added an analogy.
"Think of one neighbour in his home. His thermostat is turned down and the lights are off in the rooms he is not using. Across the street, the other neighbour has his baseboard heaters cranked and all the lights in the house are on. Should the first neighbour pay the same hydro bill as the second?" Grieve said. "Water is only going to get more expensive. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending that we can turn the clock backwards is not our option."
While some claim the devices are ineffective, Rutten says water meters have been shown to reduce consumption by 30 to 40 per cent in a community.
Installing 1,500 water meters cost $1.25 million. The project was funded by grant money and reserves. It did not require a referendum because it did not involve large amounts of borrowing.
Mellin and Fortosky would prefer having one water authority serving the entire Valley.
They also noted a lack of publicity before the meeting.
"What input has the public had?" Fortosky said. "The participatory democracy in the CVRD is not what it should be in our estimation. There doesn't seem to be any listening to the community. I certainly would like to see more community consultation. Increasing water rates in this manner, by bringing it up at a meeting which is not well publicized, is not satisfactory."
Rutten said the district advised homeowners of the meeting by mail and online.
Mellin said residents have a proposal to make the system more equitable. They are slated to deliver a presentation Monday at the next Electoral Services Area Committee meeting, which begins at 10 a.m. at the regional district boardroom.
"This is a bit of a cash cow," Mellin said. "We don't have a shortage of water, we have a shortage of infrastructure. Why don't we put a couple more storage tanks in?"
Mock rates could be recommended at the EASC meeting, with the board adopting rates later in October.
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Courtenay does not have a residential water metering program, though meters have been installed in multi-residential and commercial units.
Comox has voluntary metering.
Courtenay charges a $343 flat rate. With frontage tax of about $60 per resident, the yearly charge for water is about $400, based on cost, markup and reserves, says Mayor Larry Jangula.
"It's very clear that our residents do not want water meters," said Jangula, who feels money should be spent to upgrade the main water system.
"If you put a water meter in, how can you then restrict how much water someone uses? I feel that our public have been respectful over water use. It's changing habits and they change slowly.
"I think by and large they've bought into it. What they want to see is fiscal accountability with their dollars."
About a third of Comox properties have been metered. These residents choose whether to pay a flat rate of $327 per year on their property tax bill, or a metered rate of 93 cents per cubic metre for consumption over 12 cubic metres per month (there is a minimum charge for metered customers of $17.50 per month).
The maximum that can be saved on a metered rate is $117 per year.
Comox water rates also include a surcharge for consumption exceeding 600 cubic metres per year of $1.40 per cubic metre for flat-rate customers, or 47 cents per cubic metre for metered-rate customers.
Over the past year, statistics show an average Comox home used 304 cubic metres (304,000 litres) of water. A typical (median) home used 247 cubic metres (247,000 litres) — meaning half got by with fewer than 247m3.