Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Few Things that You May Not Know About the New Utility Rates

At the last council meeting, a bare majority of council members (5-4) voted to increase your utility rates every year for the next four years.  This was in spite of a motion that I put forward that we only set the new rates for one year, which would give us the opportunity to rethink things next year.

I voted against the proposed increase for a number of reasons. While I recognize the importance of maintaining the infrastructure that provides one of life's basic requirements, I don't believe that council, or the public, was provided with enough information about the proposed new rates, or what other options might have been.  From the information that we have been given, it appears as though residential users will be getting a higher proportional increase than commercial users, and that those residential users who use less water will be getting a higher proportional increase than those who use more water, and both of those things strike me as being unfair.

Once again, it seems as though the impatience of some members of council to make decisions before having as much pertinent information as possible has trumped the importance of knowing exactly what it is that the citizens of Prince Albert are going to have to deal with.

Publicly, the message from administration is that this is an increase of 10.4 per cent for the average residential user.  I asked for a breakdown on how this would affect high, medium and low residential users, and from the information that I was provided, it appears that the 10.4 per cent increase only applies if you're what is considered a high user - 2500 cubic feet per quarter.  If you fall into the moderate user area, 1800 cubic feet (which is where my water bill puts our family), the increase in the first year is actually 11.8 per cent.  And if you're what is considered to be a low user, 1200 cubic feet, your increase in the first year will be 13.6 per cent.

And who are the low users?  They would be those households of one or two people, often seniors living on fixed incomes, who will be facing the largest proportional impact on their utility bills.  And for those who have worked to reduce their water consumption - those who have invested in more efficient shower heads and low-use toilets, or who collect rain water for their gardens rather than using the hose - well, they probably did it because they're interested in the environment, but they won't be getting any financial thanks from the city for their efforts, that's for sure.

I would have been much more comfortable with this if the information provided had laid out the whole spectrum of changes, rather than just focusing on the 10.4 per cent.  To me, that's being misleading, by giving only the least of the increases, rather than all of them.

The other confusing part to me, that has yet to be explained clearly, is the difference between the increase for residential and commercial users.  The 10.4 per cent increase for residential users would appear to be quite a bit more than the 4.66 per cent increase that commercial users will be paying.   However, the city manager has said that the two increases are the same, but he has yet to provide us with his reasoning for how 10.4 per cent equals 4.66 per cent (let alone how 13.6 per cent equals 4.66 per cent).

Part of the problem is that your utility bill covers far more than just your water usage - you're paying for infrastructure maintenance and repair, as well as for garbage pick-up, both of which are unrelated to your water use, and you're also paying for a portion of the costs of city administration.  Once again, these are all necessary costs, but I would prefer that they are dealt with as part of the overall taxation process, rather than being hidden as part of your utility bill.

I also don't understand why water billing can't be done monthly, as most other household bills are.  I've raised this in the past, and been told by administration that it would be too expensive, but, as with many other things, the reasons why this can't be done haven't been explained.

I've had a few phone calls and conversations with people saying that they don't understand the logic behind the proposed increases, and I haven't been able to provide them with much information.  To me, that's a clear sign that we're not ready to move forward with these changes, and until we can explain clearly how people will be affected, we shouldn't be rushing to the first solution offered by administration.

"Figures can lie, and liars do figure." - Anonymous

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