Sewer fee changes not sitting well with Harrison taxpayers
Harrison Hot Springs business and property owners showed up en masse to a special council meeting on Tuesday morning, to air their concerns about a hefty impending hike to sewer usage fees.
The meeting's agenda included the potential approval of a new fee structure that will see business owners paying 50 per cent more for their sewer user fees in 2012. The new fees are a necessary change to help pay for the operating costs of the new sewer system, staff explained. But many who spoke at the meeting said they were unsure what that would mean to their businesses' bottom line. By the end of the meeting, based on the comments they heard from this ad hoc group of residents and business owners, council agreed that more consultation would be beneficial to the public.
So, council and staff have now agreed to include a discussion about the upcoming changes in the April 2 council meeting's agenda, before the new bylaw is adopted. It was an agreement that pleased many of the business owners, at least one who had traveled from out of town to have his concerns heard by council. Others left the meeting happy to find out that they could meet directly with Village staffers Peggy Parberry (manager of revenue services) or Dale Courtice (director of finance) to discuss their individual concerns privately.
But the two-hour meeting had its ups and downs, starting with a disturbance in the public gallery that shut the meeting down for about 15 minutes.
Witnesses report that a member of the public, Leslie Ghezesan, was calling members of council and staff derogatory names at the onset of the 10 a.m. meeting, shortly before a reporter arrived. That outburst caused the mayor to stop the meeting "until cooler heads prevailed," one person said.
The meeting re-convened at 10:15 a.m.
Mayor Leo Facio apologized for the inconvenience, saying: "That sort of behaviour is uncalled for."
He also re-arranged the order of the meeting, to deal with the two lesser items on the agenda first, and leave the contentious user fee hike to the end of the meeting.
Changes to the sewer system have been discussed at council for the past several years, and a new sewage treatment plant has just been completed in the Village. It replaces what had been used since 1969, an aging plant with dubious capabilities and an estimated eight to 10 years of life left.
"Our staff were mechanical geniuses to keep it going," Facio said of the previous plant.
There had been talks with the District of Kent to create a regional sewer system that would incorporate Agassiz, Harrison Hot Springs the outlying District areas and the two prisons. There was an approval for $3.1 million in borrowing from the government for that project. However, Courtice, said the cost estimates kept rising, "going through the roof and making it impossible for a Village of our size to comprehend."
So, the decision was made to pull out of plan with Kent, and create their own system. The scope of the project was changed and a new plan was created, starting in 2009.
The plant is now complete, and staff has found that operating the newer-style plant and servicing its users will cost more than previously expected, resulting in a 50 per cent jump in usage fees. This will be the first increase in such fees in 15 years, and Harrison's fees will remain one of the lowest in the region.
Facio wrote a letter that was delivered throughout Harrison in early March. In it, he explained the financial situation the Village is now facing.
"Unless someone out there has a magic want to figure out how we'll finance the sewer plant," he said, the new fee system will be a reality.
A new system unrolls
Currently, Harrison tax bills include frontage rates for sewer and water, and user fees for sewer and water. Not all properties have sewer and/or water along their frontage. Others may have the lines running past their properties, but are not hooked up.
All of those fees are now no longer a part of the tax billing, but a separate billing system that will be spread out into quarterly payments, to ease the financial burden that some may face.
However, not everyone will see an increase. Some homeowners will actually have a decrease in their overall frontage/user fees.
Residents are paying the lion's share (93 per cent) of the sewer frontage to date, causing inequity in the system, Courtice explained. The new rates are based on the actual frontage of a home or business.
The new rates will help cover the unexpected costs of running this new state-of-the-art sewer system. Previous council had been told that the system would not cost more to operate, which has not turned out to be the case.
Courtice said that they won't have a clear idea of what annual operating costs will be until they have run it for a year. At that time, user fees could change again to correlate to the actual costs.
Increased costs are to pay for operating costs, and not perceived overruns in the capital costs of the project, staff explained at the meeting.
The capital portion is being paid for with grant money. However, for this particular project, the government requires proof of the project being built first. As the bills are paid, the government reimburses the Village. On Tuesday, council also voted to temporarily transfer $662,166 from the reserve funds to the Sewer Development Cost Charge Reserve Fund. That money will be returned when the Village receives payment from the Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund.
The new plant will sustain 3,800 people in the Village of Harrison Hot Springs — a number that has been projected as a future possibility by the Fraser Valley Regional District.
Facio asked the public to be understanding of the situation more than once, and urged them to become more involved with the community's happening as a whole, to lessen the amount of confusion and shock felt upon such an announcement.
"Most people don't come to the budget meetings, which are the most important meetings we have all year," he said. "If you want to stay communicative, you have to put yourself out there a little bit."
He suggested businesses join the Chamber of Commerce, and that members start attending the regular Chamber meetings.
Business owners said their suffering from lack of tourism recently, and the sewer rate increases are insult to injury.
"It's a tough struggle not just for this community, but for all of B.C.," Facio responded, noting that more capital projects could be coming.
"Things are deteriorating and what's underground is next," he said, referring to pipe systems. "These are things that people don't even think about, as long you can flush your toilets."
A public meeting to discuss all projects and issues facing the Village, including the financial plan, was planned for April 19. That event has been postponed due to the provincial by-election being called for that day. A new date will be chosen at the April 2 meeting.
To learn more about the coming changes to sewer rates, attend the April 2 Harrison council meeting at 7 p.m. or phone the Village office at
Council at Tuesday's meeting consisted of Councillor Allan Jackson, Councillor Sonya Reyerse and Mayor Leo Facio. Councillor Zoltan Kiss was absent, and the fourth council seat is currently unoccupied until the municipal bylelection on May 12.