Ottawa·Analysis

Councillors shirk responsibility with storm water reprieve

Council flushed its responsibility to fund storm water sewers over the next decade down the drain Wednesday, opting instead for a short-term fix that will drive up debt and put off more difficult decisions until well past the next municipal election.

Wednesday's vote to soften rate hike buys good will in an election year, but we'll pay for it down the pipe

Within hours of Ottawa city council's vote Wednesday, a severe storm flooded streets and strained the city's storm water sewer system. (Anika Steele)

There aren't many sexy municipal issues — purchasing bylaw amendments, anyone? — and storm water sewer infrastructure is no exception.

Pipes, tunnels and ditches that collect rainwater are hardly a basis for a House of Cards plot.

But in case we needed a reminder about why that underground network is so important, Wednesday afternoon's torrential downpour provided one. As climate change brings more unexpected, freakish weather, our infrastructure will take a beating.

And yet, mere hours earlier, council flushed its responsibility to fund storm water sewers over the next decade down the drain. They opted instead for a short-term fix that will see a drop in next year's rate increase, but requires borrowing $3 million and punts more difficult decisions well past the October 2018 municipal election.  

Rural storm water saga, redux

Last year around this time, rural residents raised a ruckus over being charged for storm water sewer services for the first time in years.

The city was overhauling the water and sewer bill to make the revenue stream more predictable and, in addition to charging for actual water use, instituted a fixed charge to cover infrastructure costs. 

Even though storm water has nothing to do with water consumption, the charge for storm water service had always appeared as a percentage of the water bill. So rural properties not connected to the municipal water system hadn't paid a cent into the storm water system for years because they didn't get water bills.

Under the new billing structure, those rural homeowners would start being charged $4.44 per month. (The rural stormwater sewer rate is lower than the urban rate.)
Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt said he felt 'blindsided' by the double-digit increases proposed for storm water sewer services. (CBC)

They were furious, and eventually council agreed to phase in the charges over four years. In 2017, a rural homeowner paid less than $14 for stormwater service, or $1.16 per month.

Earlier this month, some rural residents became enraged all over again, after a 10-year plan for the water and sewer system showed annual planned increases of 10, 12, even 13 per cent.

For Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, who had defended the city's position last year against pushback from some of his own residents, the increases suddenly gave credence to the argument that the storm water charge was nothing but a tax grab.

To be fair to Moffatt and his rural constituents, there was no mention made of the double-digit increases during last year's extensive discussions on the water and sewer charge overhaul. And staff should have had some idea ahead of time how much money they'd need to improve the system.

Still, if the changes had gone ahead, by 2027, a rural resident would have paid $169 a year for storm water sewer service, or $14 a month.

During the past week, councillors, staff and the mayor's office worked to come up with a plan that would be politically palatable and find enough money to fund the city's infrastructure needs.

They found one — but at a cost.

Council fix shortsighted

On Wednesday council voted in favour of what was characterized as a "compromise" for 2018: the storm water sewer rate will rise by only 5 per cent instead of 13 in 2018, and election year.

To make up the shortfall in revenue, the city will borrow $3.1 million. There is currently no plan for 2019 and beyond.

Even with the added debt, the new scheme leaves the water and sewer folks short $500,000 of its revenue goal of $83.2 million. And the new borrowing will push the department right up against the council-set debt ceiling, leaving little wiggle room for future work.

Perhaps the most egregious part of the plan is that borrowing $3 million will add $1.9 million to the city's interest payments over the next decade.

So instead of paying a few more dollars a month for our storm water pipes in 2018, we'll all pay even more through interest rates over the years..

Rural councillor votes against scheme

This backwards math led Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper to vote against the plan. He was joined in his dissent by Coun. Michael Qaqish and, bizarrely, by Osgoode Coun. George Darouze — one of the rural councillors railing against the old plan.
Osgoode Coun. George Daouze voted against a short-term fix to lower rates that was negotiated behind the scenes to help rural councillors. (Steve Fischer)

Darouze told reporters after Wednesday's meeting that he "always supported a two per cent increase in everything we do in this city." This is odd, as no one at city hall has ever spoken about two per cent increases when it comes to water and sewer.

Indeed, at the council meeting of Oct. 12, 2016, Darouze voted in favour a budget plan that assumed a five per cent increase in the water rate. So it's not clear what Darouze meant. 

And unlike his rural colleagues, Darouze claimed he didn't have enough time to "discuss it with my community."

Darouze has his own advisory committee, who apparently advised him not to vote in favour of this week's scheme that was largely concocted to help rural councillors. He has not made himself many friends around the council table by voting nay.

So what happens in 2019? No one knows. Perhaps staff will find "efficiencies' — that's city hall speak for saving money by cutting elsewhere. Maybe council will have to vote to raise the debt ceiling and borrow more money. Or maybe the rates will have to rise by 10 or 13 per cent.

But it won't matter. Because by the time council has to figure it out and answer to voters, it will be well past next year's election.

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