In a special meeting on Thursday Nov 3, Valemount Council agreed to increase water and sewer rates by something like nine percent, keeping the discount for those who pay early.
The bylaws still have to go through the usual readings, so the public can make comment before the final reading.
I applaud Council for making a tough decision – no one likes their taxes going up, but the increase is necessary because we need to increase reserves for the utilities. A lot of our infrastructure is old and will need replacing and upgrading, and there are more and stricter requirements now than there were 40 years ago. And we’ve already depleted much of our reserves because of relatively recent investments like the new water treatment plant. I think we should have increased our rates earlier than this, but at least now we’ll start building reserves again.
And I applaud Mayor Townsend and Councillor Reimer for thinking again of water meters, which would be the only way to truly have a fair system of charging users for the water and sewer they actually use.
In her presentation to Council, Director of Finance Lori McNee made the point that it is very difficult to go backwards – to lower rates or lower increases, because you eventually have to make it up somewhere. That is essentially why I disagree with the other motion made at the meeting – to give vacant properties a larger discount on their utility bills. Because that means the rest of us will have to pay that much more.
I know people will argue that vacant properties aren’t using the utilities, so they shouldn’t have to pay. People also argue that empty houses shouldn’t have to pay, because they are not using the utilities either, and that vacation homes are putting “less stress” on the system.
But they are both benefiting from having the ability to use the services – the owners of empty houses benefit by being able to turn the water on when they show up for their vacation, and empty lot owners benefit by being able to charge more to the people they sell their lot to, because the new owners won’t have to pay for installing the infrastructure. And in both cases, someone has to pay for the maintenance of that underground infrastructure, and to eventually replace it, even on a street with no houses.
That is why empty lot owners have been charged utility bills for the last few years, but they’ve been getting a 50 per cent discount. If this bylaw passes, they will now get a 60 per cent discount.
I also disagree with the comments from Mayor Townsend that a five to nine per cent increase is not that much in the long term. Yes, it is a necessary increase, and yes, it is not that much for some people who are making good wages or have lots of good investments or retirement savings.
But for people on low incomes, or fixed incomes like many or our seniors, five to nine percent is going be a lot – especially when that is how much it needs to increase each year. And since I don’t imagine there are many low- or fixed-income owners of empty lots, they won’t get the benefit of the bigger discounts.
And they may not be able to benefit from the discount when they pay early – because they may not have the money to pay early.
I think Council should go with option 2B presented by Mrs. McNee – a slightly lower increase of 8.5 percent, which includes getting rid of the early payment discount. And don’t give a bigger discount to vacant properties than they already have – that just means the rest of us will have to pay more.