Time to pay the piper

Norfolk approves 16.8% water bill increase

The average residential water bill in Norfolk County is poised to rise by $13.42 a month in 2020.

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It looks like 2020 will be the year that users of municipal water in Norfolk County will have to pay the piper.

Tuesday, Norfolk council approved a whopping 16.8 per cent increase in municipal water and sewer rates, effective in the new year.

That means a household on municipal water paying $80 a month — based on consumption of 11 cubic metres per month — will pay $93.41 a month for the same usage in 2020.

The 16.8-per-cent increase was one of three “horrible” choices placed before council, Mayor Kristal Chopp said.

The other options were slightly less expensive but came at the cost of urgent improvements to water- and wastewater-processing plants and infrastructure in Simcoe, Port Dover, Delhi, Waterford and Port Rowan.

Primary drivers of the increase include expensive upgrades to infrastructure across the county.

In an exchange with Mayor Chopp, Jason Godby, Norfolk’s interim general manager of public works, said some of this work has been in the queue for years but is only coming to council’s attention now by way of the 2020 budget document.

Topping the list is $35 million in upgrades to the waste-water and water-pollution control plant in Simcoe.

Norfolk began 2019 expecting to spend $4.5 million on the plant off Oakwood Avenue next year but a raft of requested upgrades has since come to light.

“The majority of that facility is 1950s technology that needs to be replaced,” Godby said.

The wastewater treatment facility in Simcoe is of interest to the Ministry of the Environment, in part, because the effluent it produces empties into the Lynn River, which in turn empties into Long Point Bay. As residents in the area of Silver Lake in Port Dover can attest, water flowing into town from Simcoe isn’t always of the highest quality.

Another unexpected $8 million will be spent next year on upgrades to the water-pollution control plant in Port Dover on Hamilton Plank Road. The project was expected to cost $9.3 million but the estimate has since increased to $17.3 million.

A $5.6-million clarifier for the water-treatment plant in Port Dover has also been inserted into the 2020 budget. Another $3 million will be spent next year on repairs to an iron water main between Port Rowan and St. Williams that has corroded prematurely.

Interim CAO Chris McQueen described these upgrades and the 16.8 per cent increase as a necessary “correction” that “will put council on a much sounder footing.”

Jason Burgess, a consultant with the firm MNT and Norfolk’s interim general manager of corporate services, elaborated on this point.

“Presenting a 16.8 per cent rate hike is not something any staff member wants to do,” Burgess said, adding he brings to the job a “philosophy of a no-surprise budget.”

“This was a tough budget,” Burgess continued. “You’ll also have a tough budget with levy (in January). There will also be surprises next year.”

The latter refers to proposed increases of 7.3 per cent in the 2021 rate-supported water budget and another 6.7 per cent increase in 2022. These are just the anticipated costs staff can identify in the present. Burgess foresees factors emerging over the next year that put upward pressure on these numbers as well.

“We play this tape on a loop for staff: `This cannot happen again,’” Burgess told council.

Burgess said Tuesday’s report is so full of unpleasant news because the county doesn’t have the “internal resources” to stay on top of these things.

“We’re being caught trying to do too much with too little; caught flying by the seat of our pants so to speak,” he said. “This isn’t just public works – it’s a problem throughout the corporation.”

Making matters worse, Norfolk has next to nothing in its water and wastewater reserve funds.

“The county has no cookie-jar funds,” Burgess said. “The cupboards are bare for all your reserve funds.”

Norfolk will cover the bulk of these improvements with debt financing. The 2020 increase is so large – in part – because this council wants to start replenishing reserves so it has something in the bank when the next big projects come due.

A brief history of residential water rates in Norfolk lends some perspective to Tuesday’s increase.

Residential rates fell 9.5 per cent in 2016 as a result of a consultant’s study which recommended shifting about $2 million of the annual cost to the general levy due to the use of municipal water in rural fire suppression.

A much larger share of the cost for municipal sewage treatment was also shifted to rural residents, cottagers and boaters who rely on holding tank pump-outs.

The average residential ratepayer in Norfolk was shelling out $82.74 a month in 2015. That fell to $74.91 a month in 2016 as a result of the rate study. As well, the new Norfolk council agreed to a zero percent rate hike for 2019 due to an operating surplus in 2018.