Sunday, February 12, 2012

Troubled Waters

I've been part of city council for more than ten years, and the public outcry following the boil water order is the greatest I've seen in that time. Whether we've been shopping at the grocery store, having coffee at the Bison, or talking to friends at church, people have been stopping me to ask questions and let me know how angry they are.

They're angry because they are paying for an essential service that they are not getting.

They're angry because they are having to assume extra costs to ensure that they and their families, or if they run a business, their customers, don't get sick. It's more than inconvenient, it costs money, whether to buy bottled water, or in increased energy costs to boil water for cooking, drinking, and washing.

They're angry because they feel that this council has spent money wastefully, on nice-to-haves, while not taking care of the necessities.

They're angry because nobody from the city has said that they're sorry, or has shown much empathy for what residents are having to do to cope with the situation.

And they're angry because they're being told that their costs for this essential service that they're not currently receiving are going to go up (over and above the annual 7% increase that was put in place a few years back), because this council only looks at one way of solving a problem, and that way is to hit the taxpayer right in the wallet, rather than looking for alternative solutions.

I don't blame them. While some commenters on news media web-sites are quick to call people whiners, because in the olden days people had to haul water, or because in other countries there is no assurance of clean drinking water, they're ignoring the fact that, unlike in those situations, we pay our water bills based on the premise that we should be able to drink the water that comes out of the tap without worrying that we might get sick because of it.

At our house, our lives have been inconvenienced by this. We've bought bottled water, we've boiled water for the prescribed more than a minute, we've put water bottles in the bathroom for teeth brushing purposes, and we've started using the dishwasher rather than Andrea's preferred method of washing by hand. And I consider that we're lucky - we can afford to do all of these things, and we have no small children to consider. But for lower income families, families with infants and small children, seniors, or those who need to be extra cautious for health reasons, this goes beyond mere inconvenience.

And for businesses, who are faced with the double whammy of increased costs coupled with lower revenues after having to close temporarily, and then having fewer customers, the costs are very real.

At least the messages coming out of City Hall are getting clearer. The press conference on Friday was a big improvement over the one that I attended earlier in the week. Colin Innes presented a very clear picture on the steps that need to be followed before the boil water order can be lifted. Rather than trying to paraphrase what he said, because I think that providing this sort of information is best left to the experts, I would suggest that you go to the city's web-site to view the video of the press conference - you can find in in the Boil Water Update section.

That's one of the questions that people want an answer to - "What has to happen before I can drink the water?" The others are "How did this happen?" and "What is the city going to do to make sure that this doesn't happen again?" Beyond discussion of either a broken or a faulty valve causing the problem, complicated by the ongoing upgrades at the water plant, which have taken much of it off-line, I'm not sure that we've been given a clear answer. And I haven't heard anyone say what will be done differently to ensure that, even in this ongoing higher risk time while construction continues, we won't be put back into this situation.

This week's council meeting does give us an opportunity to demonstrate that we now understand the difference between wants and needs. We are scheduled to vote on next year's budget that includes increased spending on wants - floral decorations ($40,000), a new bylaw officer downtown ($30,000 - something that should be part of the police budget, in my opinion), an additional $150,000 to the Arts Board, which is used to run the Rawlinson Centre - their funding now goes to $447,270), and the more than $200,000 that was redirected at the last minute from city maintenance to a number of special interest projects, including the Historical Society, Tourism, the Rotary Trail, and skunk control). That's just a few off the top of my head.

Again, I'm not disputing that, in better times, these aren't worthy projects. My point is that they are not needs, but wants. And when you're short of money, you start by cutting back on the wants.

So at Monday's meeting, we could send the budget back for a serious reworking, instructing administration to look at everything, not just new expenditures. We could delay voting on the increase in water rates until we get a reworked budget that takes money from wants and puts it towards needs. We could delay decisions on other discretionary spending, and put a freeze on hiring and out-of-scope raises. We could stop behaving as though the taxpayers' pockets have infinite depth.

While we're at it, I think that we should stop including a sanitation charge on the water bill. That goes to the landfill and garbage pick-up, and should rightfully be put back into the general budget, where it was taken from a few years back to keep the tax increase down. Let's treat the water utility like a utility, and start billing monthly, but focus it on the provision of water.

I think that we should also look at city facilities that use water without cost. I believe that the rule of thumb used in setting user fees is that they should cover 40% of the total costs. If we don't include the costs of water for facilities such as the golf course or the soccer centre (remember how badly we needed those underground sprinklers?), then we're missing a large portion of the real costs when we calculate user fees, and letting the taxpayer subsidize the users even more.

I don't think that it's unreasonable to ask administration to think outside their usual box of increased tax solutions. It's time that council showed some leadership that demonstrates that we're actually aware of the concerns of the average citizen, and change our direction to help to address those concerns.

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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