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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Budget deliberations begin: water and sewer

Council confirmed its commitment to freeze water and wastewater rates, thereby putting on hold an aggressive plan to to rejuvenate our aging infrastructure. But some members remember the sink hole.
Last night Council completed its review of Water and Wastewater and Treatment Budget, and the Capital Budget. At the end, little had changed; although there were some differences of opinion on a number of issues and a few challenges to the staff recommendations.

Water and Wastewater Operating and Capital Budgets

The afternoon began with a presentation from City Engineer Pat McNally who outlined the challenges facing the City in maintaining water and sewer services as it reconciles a rate freeze with increased costs, declining revenues as a result of reduced usage, and an aging infrastructure. Currently, there is approximately a half billion dollar deficit in infrastucture renewal. The staff recommendations were to approve a $56.7M budget for water and $71.4M for wastewater, the total effectively unchanged from 2010.

A few interesting facts:
  • The average household pays $317 per year, or 87 cents per day for all the safe water to drink or use to cook, bathe, or flush. That's less than the cost of 1 bottle of water from the store.
  • Average household water usage has decined by 22% since 2001.
  • Sanitary and storm sewers cost the average household $460 per year or $1.26 per day.
In December, Council committed to a freeze in 2011 for water and sewer rates, putting on hold the aggressive program of investment in infrastructure of the previous council. Staff accordingly brought in a revised budget to reflect this. Since some costs continue to rise (negotiated wages and benefits, overhead costs, increased costs of water, etc.) this means cutting contributions to the reserve funds, delaying some capital projects and putting the infrastructure sustainability target further into the future.

At the public participation meetings last week, a number of delegations pleaded with Council to reconsider the rate freeze which, they argued, jeopardizes our health, our safety, and our environment as well as our longterm financial sustainablity of the City. Despite the efforts of some members of the current council to reiterate those concerns, most ignored the warnings and continued to support the freeze which is anticipated to save the average household in the neighbourhood of one dollar per month. That should cover the cost of one bottle of water each month.

Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler, noting that $300,000 for the decommissioning of abandoned wells had been removed from the budget, argued forcefully for the reinstatement of these funds, in order to protect source water for which the city is liable. Other councillors, notably Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser and Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen, argued that any risk was negligible. Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe asked if there was some way little bits could be “shaved off other projects” to cover the cost of this which led Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan to suggest that if we could just shave a bit off the various projects, it made the whole budget suspect. After some further discussion, it was suggested that the funds be reinstated if there was money in the surplus. This seemed to annoy the Mayor who wasn't interested in“creating a list” of things for the surplus. The motion, however, passed.

Another area of discussion was the issue of separating the storm and sanitary sewers. At issue was the article by the London Free Press last fall pointing out that London has a lot of bypasses, occasions when a heavy rain overtaxes the sanitary sewer resulting in raw sewage going directly into the river without being treated at the pollution treatment plant. About .2% of effluent entering the Thames is untreated as a result of this condition.

In London, like many other cities with aging infrastructure, the fact that some of our sewers do double duty as storm and sanitary sewers contributes to the frequency of bypasses. Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson suggested that the engineering department put all its money into pipe separation and fix the problem once and for all.

Staff pointed out that in addition to some pipe separations there are many other essential projects for the $71.4 million in the budget such as relining and replacement which can’t be delayed and projects have to be planned to coincide with other works. Additionally, much of the problem occurs on private property via weeping tiles. Finally, $71.4 million wouldn’t begin to cover that cost which would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and Council just endorsed a freeze on rates. You can’t take millions of dollars out of the budget and complete more projects at the same time.

Ultimately, the Water Budget and the Wastewater Budgets were passed as proposed by staff. As Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill pointed out, “You know where to cut. We’re not engineers.”

He wasn’t quite accurate on that score. Both Henderson and Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher are engineers, the former an electrical engineer and the latter a civil engineer.

From where I'm sitting, it seems somewhat incongruous that this Council should even begin to contemplate servicing lands along the 401 and 402 when it is not prepared to deal with the half billion infrastructure gap we currently have. Especially when the industry for whic they propose this servicing doesn't even pay development charges to cover the cost.

Be prepared for a hit.

As a post script, a significant problem for the health of the Thames is the practice of emptying backyard pools containing salt water into the storm sewer and killing fish and other freshwater organisms in the process. The salt water has to go into the sanitary sewer through your household connection. To do otherwise creates a significant environmental hazard and the risk of substantial fines.

1 comment:

ChrisD said...

I did write all of Council prior to the vote on freezing sewer and water rates.I was concerned about the infrastructure and future problems if we did not stick to a yearly plan to correct the aging pipes and bridges. I only received two responses. The rest seemed intent on proceeding with a plan for zero tax increase at any cost.

I am happy to see that the River was mentioned here. The 'wow' factor in the Thames River plan may come from a negative rather than a positive.For instance:'Wow, how did the Thames get so poluted and lwhy have we lost so much plant and animal life. We elect individuals to represent us and to be stewards of not only our finances but also our natural areas. What kind of legacy do we leave and at the end of the day how many people will remember the tax freeze of 2011 when they see the devastation that has occurred afterwards.