London Community News
By Sean Meyer/London Community News/Twitter: Newswriter22
“Priceless.” That is how Bob McDonald, the CBC’s chief science correspondent, answered his own audience-direction question about what the value of water is.
McDonald asked this question to an audience of approximately 250 people in the Wolf Performance Hall, on Tuesday (Oct. 2). The public participation meeting — creatively titled, Piped In — was held to provide residents with an update on the process city staff are undertaking around creation of a new funding model for municipal water and wastewater services.
McDonald delivered a charming and engaging 30-minute lecture on the value of water from a global perspective. However, it was city engineer John Braam who had the task of laying out the enormous challenge staff face in creating a new fee structure that could ultimately cost see some London residents facing much higher water bills.
“Every time you make a change to any sort of rate structure, there are winners and losers in that particular group,” Braam said. “Some will pay more than they have, some will pay less, perhaps, than they had.”
During his portion of the presentation, Braam would repeatedly emphasize the city needs a funding model that will ensure financial stability for London’s water system, promote conservation and support economic development. To achieve this goal, Braam said some portion of the fee structure, which currently only has a one per cent fixed component, will have to be changed.
And while Braam said every effort will be made to not penalize those who have been stalwarts of conservation, the solution to what Mayor Joe Fontana often calls “the conundrum” — declining revenues as a result of people using less water — isn’t an easy one.
“When we have a low consumer at one end and a higher consumer on the other end, well that higher consumer may have done everything they could to conserve and have been very effective,” Braam said. “Because they are using more water they are actually subsidizing those who aren’t paying their fare share.”
Not surprisingly, Fontana agreed with Braam that the existing fee structure is no longer sustainable so council, along with staff, will have to work on determining what the new rate will be. And perhaps more importantly, determine the percentage between variable and fixed.
“Now it is 99 per cent variable and one per cent fixed. That fixed rate is supposed to cover some of the costs that are in the ground already,” Fontana said. “It isn’t an easy solution, but I want to make sure at the end it is affordable, fair and equitable.”
Many of the questions submitted online, along with the approximately dozen people in the audience who spoke, surrounded why residential customers should be asked to pay more. At one point during the question and answer session between McDonald and Braam, it was asked how London compares to other municipalities in Ontario.
Braam said in the residential sector, higher-end water users are just below the average cost across the province. The lower-end users, those using less than 10 cubic metres per month, are paying approximately 30 per cent less than the provincial average.
When it comes to industrial rates, Braam said London is approximately 40 per cent lower than the average rate. On the commercial, that number is around 25 per cent lower than the average.
The Piped In dialogue did succeed in doing something that has proven a challenge to many other civic engagement episodes, actually drawing a crowd. And in the case of Piped In, the chair of the Civic Works Committee — which oversees water-related matters — said the event was a definite success.
Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher said he was “very impressed with the turnout,” crediting the success to not only the speakers, but the community as well.
“I am very impressed with the turnout. I think Bob McDonald put things in perspective and John Braam brought things home,” Usher said. “The questions were really good too. That tells me people are paying attention to what we are doing. And number two, that many people are concerned. So now is the time to bring these things up.”
The biggest obstacle Usher said that faces both staff and councillors — and it was the overriding theme of the session — is finding a rate structure that is “balanced and fair,” even if not everyone is happy with the result.
“I don’t think, no matter what we have, that we are going to please everybody. You can’t say you won’t worry about the smaller numbers because they are the ones who will suffer more,” Usher said. “But we have to provide a model that developers, commercial enterprises and investors can accept and are still willing to bring their business in.”
The model is expected to be ready for councillors to look at during the Civic Works Committee meeting on Oct. 22. That meeting won’t include the pricing of the system, as that isn’t expected until November.
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