Thursday July 24, 2014



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Water rates are all wet

Airport subdivision residents irked by higher rates, but PRRD says it's a done deal
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Derek Bedry Photo

Residents at the Airport Subdivision think they are paying exorbitant prices for water, but PRRD members say the anger is misguided and misinformed.

Lack of comprehension around water rates outside Fort St. John has prompted City staff to start work on a fact sheet for Peace River Regional District residents who use the service.

If that fails to placate, tough luck, said two members of the administrative body.

Lori Ackerman, a PRRD director and the mayor of Fort St. John, said she has explained the reasons for the higher rates paid by residents outside the city.

A group of 57 people is complaining that water rates for people living at the Airport Subdivision are too high. Residents of that area have been bothered since 2008, when their water rates were increased.

The inner-city rate is $1.12 a cubic metre plus $1.18 for sewer, and PRRD users pay $3.60, plus another $3 for sewer.

"It doesn't cost anymore for them to treat our 57 households as it does the rest of the city. It doesn't cost them more to pipe the water out to the airport than it does to the OSB. There's no cost to sending the water out there except for sending the water out there," said Donna Greenway, from the Airport Water Committee.

"I've had people say what's the big deal? Well my water bill was $900 for three months just because I wanted to water my grass a bit in the summer. (Ackerman)'s telling people that's just the way it is, it costs money, we don't know what we're talking about. Well, we do know what we're talking about."

Whether or not residents comprehend or accept the explanation of rates is beside the point for several reasons, Ackerman said.

"It's done. It's dealt with," Ackerman said. "The City has water. We provide water to our residents who, as taxpayers of the City, have contributed over the decades to the water system. We do not get any property tax input or any money into our capital infrastructure (from Airport residents). So this is a non-issue."

She added the area is outside her jurisdiction, so she can't talk policy with Regional District residents. They currently have no avenue through which to change anything they don't like about their water service, according to Ackerman.

"If you don't like the price of the water, you can go elsewhere. The information has been given to these people before. We are developing a fact sheet, I don't know when it's going to be ready because this is not a City priority."

Ackerman said she has asked the PRRD to host a meeting at which she could provide the information for affected residents. However, she said that she has only had one complaint.

"I've only heard from one, Jeri Pearson," she said. "If this woman is saying there's 57 people complaining, I haven't heard about it. They all email to each other and then I get one email from Jeri."

Part of the confusion likely stems from residents being not fully aware who is supplying the water and how. Residents may get their water from the tap, but that doesn't mean the City is handling the delivery, at least in the case of the Airport Subdivision.

"The City of Fort St. John delivers water to the airport," said Moira Green, airport services managing director. "And that line runs right down 100 [Avenue] to a pumphouse in a field on airport land. At the pumphouse, there are two distinct distribution systems. One to the north, which serves the subdivision. One to the south, which serves the airport and airport tenants. There's a meter immediately outside the pumphouse on the north loop. And that meter belongs to the PRRD.

"Anything that goes into the loop is metered, and then each home in the subdivision is metered. So the PRRD actually bills their tenants for water based on what's going into each house and what goes through their metre shack."

Residents also believe they are billed an extra $1.20 for Airport billing administration, bringing their bill for water to $7.20 per cubic metre. However, what the airport actually collects is a 20 per cent markup on its products and services.

"It's a 20 per cent markup because we maintain all of this infrastructure. So we're paying for the pump units, the sewage disposal pumping, we're paying to maintain all of that. We, meaning the user of the airport, is paying. So whenever you fly out of here, you pay to park your car, you pay to buy your coffee, that's what's paying. There's no tax dollars here."

Fred Banham, PRRD chief administrative officer, said residents complaining about water prices have one option: lower consumption.

"Everybody is getting so confused over who charges what," Banham said. "Nobody's making money on this, nobody's profiting from it. If you don't want to pay what it costs for water, reduce your consumption. Everybody seems to complicate a bunch more things and go way back in history and say, 'Well it never cost us that much for water,' well you know what? You're lucky. You've been fortunate. The reality of the situation is, the cost of water is going up. And the only way to get around that is monitor and control your consumption."

He added the Airport residents are unique for a rural community as they don't have to truck water in, have access to fire hydrants and a (figuratively speaking) unlimited supply of water from the tap.

Banham also said the smaller the community, the larger the financial burden.

"A water system that is built on 57 properties is a very small footprint to share the cost of a domestic water system. They're expensive to maintain, look after and provide for, forget about paying for the fluid. If you take a community the size of Fort St. John you have a large base with which to share those costs.

"So there's a larger cost associated with each of the 57 people. If we had 200 people that cost would be shared amongst those 200 and the cost would be less for the same volume of water per household, though the price per unit would be the same."


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