Nova Scotia

Complaints over Halifax Water's 'ditch tax' to be heard by new officer

Hundreds of customers of Halifax Water who are trying to fight the utility's controversial "ditch tax" will soon have their complaints heard by an independent officer.

Dispute resolution officer will have the power to independently adjudicate customer complaints

The Utility and Review Board has received 68 appeals from Halifax Water customers angry about the stormwater charge, known as the "ditch tax." (CBC)

Hundreds of customers of Halifax Water who are trying to fight the utility's controversial "ditch tax" will soon have a new way to lodge their complaints. 

In a recent decision, the provincial Utility and Review Board directed Halifax Water to appoint a "dispute resolution officer." That person would have a job similar to the dispute resolution officer for Nova Scotia Power. 

"It could be anything related to any of our services. We have three services: water, wastewater, and stormwater. So it could be complaints about billing, it could be complaints about anything that involves our utility," said James Campbell, a spokesperson for Halifax Water. 

Currently, unhappy customers can complain to Halifax Water, and can then appeal to the UARB. The new officer would represent a step between those two. 

Campbell said the final details of the office are being worked out with the UARB and a person will be appointed in the new year. 

That's good news for Pamela Lovelace, a Hammonds Plains resident who has campaigned against the so-called "ditch tax" since it was implemented in 2013. 

"This has taken us quite a while to get to that point, where Halifax Water is following the same model as Nova Scotia Power with their dispute resolution officer, which is fully independent," she said. 

"We're pleased to see that the Utility and Review Board is, in a sense, forcing the water commission to follow that model." 

"That's not my fair share"

Customers like Bernie Buchanan are frustrated with bills that have been mounting for three years. Buchanan and his family run the Woodhaven R.V. Park in Hammonds Plains. Their home and business are both on well water and they have a small treatment plant for the 200-site RV park. 

Bernie Buchanan and his family have received more than $8,000 in stormwater charges from Halifax Water. (Shaina Luck)

In 2013, Buchanan received a bill for approximately $2,300 in stormwater charges. 

"I was shocked," he said.

Buchanan says he has very little road frontage, and the water that runs off the gravel roads on his property is absorbed into the lawns and woods on his 20-acre property. 

Buchanan put off paying the bill and complained to Halifax Water and the UARB. However, he was told the utility was in the right. Each year thereafter he was charged again, and his current bill stands at $8,327.75. In August the utility told him it would put a lien on his property. 

"It's a small seasonal business. We're a tourism business. It's hard, it's a lot of money," he said.

Buchanan wants someone independent to come to his property and review his case. 

"I'm up to that, a discussion with somebody, sure. We've got to come to a resolution sometime. Like I said, I don't mind paying my fair share, but that's not my fair share."

Hundreds of complaints

By the beginning of November, the UARB had received 68 appeals from Halifax Water customers unhappy with the stormwater charge. James Campbell said that was part of the reason for the creation of the new office.

"It's certainly an impetus. The stormwater was certainly one of the larger complaints we have," he said. 

"Stormwater is not like our other services, water and wastewater, where there's actually a meter and you can see exactly what's going in and what's going out. Stormwater is a little more, I guess, nefarious." 

In its Nov. 9 decision, the UARB said the new dispute resolution officer could not be an employee or in any way related to Halifax Water; would have the power to mediate or adjudicate complaints; could demand information from Halifax Water, and would not be required to consult with Halifax Water before giving a decision. 

The decisions will be binding on both the utility and the customer, but either party could appeal to the UARB. 

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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