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Council adopts rebate program to assist residents with unusually high water bills

February 13, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Baker

Orangeville residents who receive an unusually high monthly water bill may soon be eligible for a rebate after Council signed off on a new water and wastewater bill adjustment policy on Monday (Feb. 10). 

The new scheme, narrowly adopted following a 4-3 vote (Coun. Debbie Sherwood, Coun. Joe Andrews, Coun. Lisa Post and Coun. Todd Taylor in favour, and Mayor Sandy Brown, Deputy Mayor Andy Macintosh and Coun. Grant Peters against), will enable residents with a seemingly unexplained high monthly water bill to receive up to $2,000 in financial relief from the Town. 

In explaining the initiative to Council, Heather McGinnity, the Town’s Manager of Environment, noted that, for a residence to qualify for a rebate, water consumption for a billing period must be greater than three times the average monthly consumption at the property for the previous year, and be greater than 50 cubic metres. Residents are only eligible for financial relief once. 

It’s not all good news, however, for residents hit with a high bill. While a rebate will be provided, the amount will simply be applied as a credit to the applicant’s account once an application has been approved. It will also only cover half the amount charged for water usage in excess of historical monthly average amounts at the property.  The Town will continue to expect full payment of the high bill by the due date, although Treasurer Nandini Syed noted payment plans could be negotiated on a case-by-case basis for those who may not be able to afford to stump up a large amount at one time. 

Any resident wishing to qualify for the rebate will be required to sign a declaration that a plumbing leak was identified and repaired at the property, and provide copies of receipts demonstrating such repairs were completed.

“Various approaches can be taken to determine the amount of a leak forgiveness credit. Some municipalities provide financial relief for the entire billing amount above typical historical water and wastewater usage, while others only provide a credit for a portion of the usage in excess of historical amounts,” Ms. McGinnity noted in her report to Council. “Staff recommend that financial relief only be used to consider for a portion of the customer’s excess water and wastewater usage, as it costs the Town money to supply potable water and collect and treat wastewater.”

She added, “If the customer at the property where a leak occurs does not pay the entirety of their bill, this cost will end up being paid by all other ratepayers. This also keeps some of the financial responsibility associated with the leak on the customer.”

When considering the financial impact this program could have on the Town, Ms. McGinnity went back and looked over water rate statistics from 2018. 

She estimated there could have been as many as 56 applications under the new policy, which could have paid out leak forgiveness credits to the tune of $37,500. This cost, Ms. McGinnity said, would be borne by the Town’s water and wastewater ratepayers. The average leak forgiveness credit amount for those applicants would have been $670, Ms. McGinnity states. 

The agreement is more than six months in the making, and follows years of back and forth between dozens of local residents and the past two Orangeville Councils about the apparent unreliability of the municipality’s current water meter reading systems. 

In the past 18 months alone, at least four residents have filed grievances with the Town after receiving water bills exceeding $1,000 for a single month’s usage. Sushil Shundil, a resident of Elderberry Street, was, perhaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in May of last year, when he spoke out about two bills, one for $1,600 and another for $1,300, that he received over a four-month period.

Weeks after Mr. Shundil had approached Council, asking for a reprieve, Council unanimously supported a motion put forth by Coun. Sherwood to have Town staff look into developing a water billing amnesty program for residents hit with unusual, apparently unexplained, high water bills. 

Speaking on Monday, Coun. Peters voiced his concern over any potential amnesty program, citing the potential for the Town’s tax base to incur significant costs if it were to move ahead. He also noted that, with the Town set to upgrade its water meter systems by 2021, any initiative launched this year would soon be made redundant. 

“This issue has such a history, but we’re at the dawn of a new era where we’re looking at new meters where people would get much more immediate feedback on their water usage. I worry this policy would only be in place for a very short period, in which time a large number of citizens could try to get in on that offer for a wide variety of water failures,” Coun. Peters said. “Once we get past the hump, with the new meters in place, everyone has control over their own water usage and we won’t need this policy anymore.”

Mayor Brown shared that sentiment. In his role as a Director of Orangeville Hydro, the company charged with billing the municipality’s water and wastewater services, the mayor says he has worked with numerous residents who have incurred additional costs on their water bill.

“Most of them are real,” Mayor Brown noted, expressing that, in most cases, the water meters at residents’ homes are showing that the amount of water billed had been used. “There haven’t been any ‘ghost’ issues.”

As one of the more pressing issues to come across Council’s desk since their collective election in late 2018, Coun. Taylor believes it’s the “right thing to do” to adopt the rebate policy.

“For me, I don’t think it’s a lot of money. I think it shows that we’re caring and concerned about residents. I think back to the sheer frustration, angst and stress residents were under – I’d really like to listen to them and show them we’re acting,” Coun. Taylor said.



         

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