If you conserve water, you could soon pay more under Ottawa's new flat rate

A long-awaited report from City of Ottawa staff recommends changes to how much the city charges for drinking water, taking away sewage and dealing with water from big storms.

New water billing system could roll out in early 2018

The City of Ottawa is introducing a new flat rate for water services.

A long-awaited report from City of Ottawa staff recommends changes to how the city charges for drinking water, takes away sewage, and deals with water from big storms.

While the city promises that most households will see hardly any change on their bills and those who use very little water will see their bills go up, those who consume a lot of water could pay less.

That's because the amount charged on water bills will no longer be based solely on how much water a home or business consumes.

The city wants to introduce a fixed cost to the bill because staff say, for the most part, the cost of operating and maintaining the water system doesn't vary with the amount of water used.

Staff also propose phasing in a storm water fee of about $27 to $53 per year on the property taxes of those who are on private wells and septic systems and don't pay water bills.

Save water, possibly pay more

The city's auditor recommended the city introduce a fixed portion to water rates back in 2008, said deputy city treasurer Isabelle Jasmin, because it's a best practice. Now with automated meter reading technology, the city can do something more sophisticated with rates than simply charge for water used, she said.

"This exercise wasn't about raising more money," added Coun. David Chernushenko, who chairs the environment committee.

Instead, it's about distributing the costs of running the system more fairly, he said.

But with most Ottawa households set to pay $17.50 per month for water and sewer costs, no matter what, the new system creates the counterintuitive situation where people who use very little water could end up paying more.

For instance, the city laid out a scenario in which a single person in a small urban house, who uses five cubic metres of water a month now pays $20 on her bill. Under the new rates, she would pay $33.

But Chernushenko said council is still keen to have people conserve water.

"It's not by any means as if this is being done on the backs of the conservers, it just does mean that they will be paying a little bit more through that fixed charge."

Packed public meetings

But it was the idea of being charged for stormwater that led rural residents with private wells and septic systems to turn out in droves to public consultations held last March and April.

Of the more than 700 people who showed up at eight consultations, ninety per cent were rural residents who didn't pay water bills. The session in West Carleton even hit capacity and several dozen people had to be turned away.
Rural homeowners in the City of Ottawa argue they should not have to pay for the infrastructure that carries away water in a storm. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

The city says everyone benefits from the infrastructure that deals with runoff from big storms, but it heard many rural property owners describe how their large yards actually absorb rain, said Chernushenko.

That's why it settled on charging rural homeowners a discounted stormwater fee — $4.44 per month for detached and semi-detached houses, compared with $8.88 for homes connected to city water — and will phase in that fee on property tax bills over four years.

"We wrote it, rewrote in a way that could be as fair as possible, that could take into account all the exceptions people brought to our attention," said Chernushenko of the new rate proposal.

"You can never get it entirely perfect, but it's as close to it as we could have come up with," he said.

But Rebecca McCurdy, who owns a home in Dunrobin, and pays to maintain her own well and septic system, still thinks rural homeowners should not have to start paying for stormwater — something she sees as a problem in urban areas, with its parking lots and dense housing.

"I think it's been fine out here for years and years," she said. "We're not asking urban dwellers to help us pay to maintain our wells."

Debate to take place Oct. 18

Citizens can make presentations on Oct. 18, when councillors gather to debate the new rate structure at a meeting of the environment committee.

If the report receives full council's approval, the new water billing system would roll out in early 2018.

This overhaul of rates is the first to happen since amalgamation 15 years ago. The report was originally supposed to come out in May, but city staff spent the summer working on it, and take into account the large amount of public feedback they received.