By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Water and sewage users in Durham will be paying an average of $36 more on their bills beginning Jan. 1 despite some councillors believing the increase was not justified.
Regional council approved a four per cent increase on water and sewer user rates for 2018 at its most recent committee of the whole meeting. The final approval is slated for today’s council meeting (Dec. 13).
If approved as is, water rates will increase 5.2 per cent, while sewer rates will be up 2.8 per cent, although Oshawa Councillor John Neal and Clarington Councillor Joe Neal attempted to have the increase cut to two per cent.
Oshawa Councillor John Aker also spoke in favour of the smaller increase, noting he didn’t believe one year of a smaller increases would have much effect on the region’s bottom line.
“I think we should test it out for one year. At the end of 2018, we’ll know if we are successful or less than successful,” he said.
However, the push to have the rate increases scaled back was soundly defeated by an 18 to six vote.
The four per cent increase means an average residential customer, using 49,000 gallons of water a year, will pay $944.16 for services next year, up from $908.08 in 2017.
Aker was also critical of the significant increases to water frontage charges, which are paid by new customers for installation of services at their residence.
Fees for watermains, dependent on size, are set to jump between 145 and 187 per cent in 2018.
The Oshawa councillor challenged how those increases could be justified, going as far to question whether the recommendations were coming strictly from the finance department.
“The commissioner of works’ signature is missing from this report. That tells me the commissioner of works doesn’t support it,” Aker stated.
However, commissioner of works Susan Siopis noted her department had reviewed the recommendations and were in support.
Regional director of finance Jim Clapp said that frontage charges for water services had been “woefully underfunded” for some time and reminded council water and sewer services are “a full cost recovery system.”
“Water and sewer is all about putting the costs in the right places so it’s fairly funded across all customers, no matter what municipality you are in.”
However, this explanation did nothing to change Aker’s stance.
“Let’s assume they are woefully underfunded. You don’t do it all in one year,” he said. “This is one that has to be…phased in. If it’s woefully low, that’s our fault.”
Earlier in the meeting, Clapp explained the region faces declining revenue because residents are using less water.
According to municipal data, average water consumption by Durham customers has fallen from about 63,000 gallons per year in 2005 to approximately 49,000 gallons this year.
“Consumption decreases continue and that effectively reduces revenue going forward,” Clapp said, adding that lower consumption does allow the region to defer major capital projects which can lead to long-term savings.
While consumption is down, rates have consistently increased over the past decade, an average of 6.4 per cent between 2008 and 2017.
Durham Region remains on the low end for water and sewer rates in comparison to similarly-sized municipalities in the province. Only customers in Peel, Hamilton, Toronto and Halton pay less on average.
“We’ve always been competitive in terms of water and sewer rates,” Clapp said.
The idea that customers are paying more because they are using less didn’t sit well with other council members.
John Neal said it causes confusion for many customers.
“They think they are doing a great thing by reducing their water usage and when they get their bill they don’t understand it,” he said.
“I’m amazed by the thought if you use [a] product less, [we’ll] charge you more,” Whitby councillor Derek Gleed stated.
Gleed suggested the region needs to do a better job of communicating with customers that by using less water, the impact of user rate increases will not be as hefty as they believe.
When Clapp indicated the region does try to get that message out, Gleed responded, “we are the ones who get the phone calls and e-mails asking why is my bill four per cent higher.”
Council had previously heard from a Durham resident, who slammed them over her water bill, stating she uses very little water and yet is charged the same service fees as those with higher consumption.
Councillor Joe Neal says that’s a message he hears quite often, “especially seniors who are on fixed incomes, who don’t get a four per cent increase in [income] they receive year-to-year.”
According to Clapp, the region is also facing revenue shortfalls due to a stagnant customer growth.
Customer growth peaked around at around four per cent in 2004, falling to 2.7 per cent in 2008, and has been between 1.1 and 1.7 per cent since.
In 2017, the region had 174,014 water customers and 169,861 sewage customers. Sewage numbers are slightly lower due to the region not providing the service to some small rural areas.
Growth for 2018 has been estimated as 1.2 per cent for water and 1.25 per cent for sewer.