Calgary city councillors reject low-income assistance for water bills

City administrators have developed a pilot project to help the poorest Calgarians with their water bills. But councillors voted it down on Wednesday.

2,300 people are more than 90 days behind on paying for their water

City council has voted down a proposal to help low-income Calgarians with their water bills, for now. (Tim Graham)

City administrators have developed a pilot project to help the poorest Calgarians with their water bills.

But a city council committee has plenty of questions and defeated the proposal, at least for now.

According to the city, 2,300 people who are more than 90 days in arrears on their bills currently owe the city nearly $1 million.

However, their water service isn't just cut off. 

In 2017, the city's water utility halted its practice of disconnecting service to addresses where bills are not paid.

But it's been working on a new program to help low-income Calgarians with their water bills.

The proposal was presented at council's utilities and corporate services committee on Wednesday — and there was push-back.

Education on water efficiency

Under the program, low-income people who are more than 90 days in arrears would be invited to seek provincial and community supports.

The city would assist in educating them on how to reduce their water consumption so they can save money. The city would also offer temporary bill adjustments for six months.

Water officials estimate the savings for each customer could be $50 to $86 per month.

Shannon Abbott with Water Resources said earlier city programs, which allowed Calgarians to access rebates if they bought items like low-flow toilets, may have excluded lower-income Calgarians.

She told the committee about one senior on a fixed-income who revealed that she reduced the number of baths she took and would use her bathtub water to flush her toilet in an effort to save money.

During the three-year life of the proposed pilot project, it is estimated the program would cost the city $2.8 million, reduce water consumption and help low-income Calgarians.

Officials said the cost could be absorbed in the department's budget.

The pilot project was defeated as a result of a tie vote at committee. 

Program would help those who need it most: Farrell

Coun. Druh Farrell supports the pilot project.

"This is important," said Farrell.

"We can't leave the people who are most in need behind."

Coun. Druh Farrell says the water bill pilot project is vital for helping low-income Calgarians. (CBC)

Other councillors on the committee agreed it's important to help. But they had questions about the way the pilot project is designed.

Coun. Peter Demong suggested officials touch base with the provincial government to see if it would help fund such an assistance program.

"Why wouldn't we go to the province and say this is a program that we're thinking of. Can we tie it into your program?" said Demong.

"My concern is once we've done the pilot, they're going to turn around and say that's a great job. You should keep doing that."

Councillors want more work

Coun. Ward Sutherland suggested administration needs to work on the specific terms of reference for the program to ensure it helps the right customers.

And while Coun. Jyoti Gondek likes the idea of the program, she said without more homework being done it's uncertain how council as a whole will feel about it.

"You've got a council that's facing a lot of tough decisions with very little left in the budget," said Gondek.

"I think you will see us challenge other orders of government and potentially bury a project that has merit because of the times that we're in."

Although the program was defeated on a tie vote, it will be referred to city council for further discussion.

That's not expected to happen until mid-November.

If council approves, the pilot project is scheduled to start in the second quarter of next year and close to new applicants in early 2021.


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