By: Korie Marshall
Members of the public attending the first meeting of Valemount Council’s public works committee were upset there wasn’t more notice of the meeting, and they weren’t allowed to speak as part of the meeting.
The first topic the committee was assigned to look at was the issue of water and sewer charges on vacant properties. The issue arose from a number of complaints including a letter from resident and business owner John Peterson, which was on a Council agenda in February. In the letter, Peterson says his company, 0725652 BC Ltd., has put in more infrastructure for water and sewer than any other private entity in the Village, and questions his utility bill for the property at 400 Ash Street, a nearly 100-acre lot within the Village. The lot is assessed in 2014 for tax purposes at $397,000, a drop from $667,000 in 2013.
“I am totally offended that vacant land that does not use water or sewer is being charged,” says Peterson’s letter.
At the Feb. 10th meeting, Mayor Townsend referred the issue to the newly appointed Public Works committee, but the committee has not been able to meet until this month. During the meeting, CAO Anne Yanciw outlined a number of meeting requests which received no response from Councillor Peter Reimer, one of the two Council members appointed to the committee. He responded that he wasn’t available until after June 22, but with a number of other events including the Community Conversations town hall meeting coming up, staff decided to schedule the meeting earlier with the other Council member appointed, Owen Torgerson.
Yanciw explained that fees for water and sewer were previously paid through parcel taxes. “Transferring them to utility fees is both more legal and more transparent,” said Yanciw.
Lori McNee, Director of Finance for the Village, is not a member of the committee, but was at the meeting to provide information.
“Before my time, there was a water parcel tax and a sewer parcel tax. When (former CAO) Tom Dall came, he realized those were not as per legislation,” said McNee. “A parcel tax needs to have a specific reason and time frame on it.”
She said the sewer parcel tax was removed in 2011, and the water parcel tax was removed in 2014, and the funds previously collected were incorporated into the utility bills.
“At that time we realized that only properties with buildings were being charged utility fees. With the previous parcel taxes, vacant lands had been charged,” said McNee.
Previous Council agreed with staff at that point and passed bylaws in early 2014 which included charging water and sewer fees to vacant properties as well as a number of changes to classifications for property types. Council had also considered charging business rates to home businesses, on top of the residential rates, but declined that change at the time.
The 38-page agenda for the committee meeting contains information from the BC Water and Wastewater Association and the Union of BC Municipalities showing that local governments have been spending less over the past 20 years on services like water and sewer, which is contributing to a $13 billion deficit to replace existing water and wastewater systems in BC communities, and that federal and provincial governments are downloading those costs and responsibilities more and more.
It also includes cost estimates for upgrading Valemount’s nine lift stations. Four of them have been in operation since the early 1980’s and currently require upgrades or replacements. None of them have backup power, which means extra work and cost for staff when the power goes out, among other risks. The total estimate to do the proposed upgrades is almost $2.1 million.
Valemount is not alone in this predicament. “Small communities of course struggle with having very small tax bases, and costs for services often are similar to larger communities because for example, the cost of running a water treatment plant doesn’t scale very easily,” says Yanciw. “Right now Local government owns 52 percent of the infrastructure, and we collect eight cents of every tax dollar. Fiscal self-reliance is a challenge.”
McNee says some quick calculations show that removing the water and sewer fees from about 180 vacant properties within the village, which are currently 50 per cent of those for properties with buildings, would mean an additional $80 for every residential property to cover funds currently collected.
“In the same way that those of us without children pay school taxes – because it is part of our social responsibility – property owners in municipalities pay towards infrastructure because it’s in their best interests to have a community with good services and good infrastructure,” says Yanciw. “Your property would be less valuable if the infrastructure and services were poor.”
There are also direct benefits to vacant property owners, just by having infrastructure adjacent to the property, such as increased property values (because you can connect to the systems when you are ready to), access to fire suppression (so your property is not a liability to the Village in case of wildfire for example) and increased saleability of properties because of the availability of infrastructure.
Yanciw says strategies the Village is currently using to try to start addressing the deficit in funding for infrastructure that will need replacing include the Cost of Service study which is currently out for proposals; applying for a grant for an asset management program; considering water metering; and looking to Valemount Council to consider pressuring other levels of government for better models of funding distribution, and to prioritize infrastructure. She says Council should also consider recommendations from the BC Water and Wastewater Association like adjusting water and sewer rates to cover the full cost of service, including the cost to renew and replace systems.
“It’s a hard decision to make, people don’t want to have to charge the public for it,” says McNee. “But someone’s got to pay for it eventually. The biggest communities that will be hit are communities under 5000. Many communities need to almost double their utilities rates, and everyone knows we can’t do that right now, but we need a plan to get there, whether it’s 2-year, 5-year, or 20-year plan.
The committee is recommending to council that vacant lot utility fees remain in place with an understanding that utility fees for the whole Village will be re-evaluated upon completion of the Cost of Services study.
Recommendations from the committee will come back to Council at an upcoming regular meeting. Results from the Cost of Services study are expected by December.
After the meeting on Friday, residents expressed more frustration at not being able to ask questions or comment during the meeting.