No  Discretion, Latitude or Recourse when it comes to City Sewage Charges.

No  Discretion, Latitude or Recourse when it comes to City Sewage Charges.

Letter to the Editor

The above subject speaks for itself. The piece below was inspired by Hugh Adami’s article on November 9th: “Transpo Rider Singled Out, Fined after Presto Card Fails to Register.” (Ottawa Citizen, A2, Monday, November 9th, 2015). Mr. Adami acts as The Public Citizen, on behalf of The Ottawa Citizen. He deserves full accreditation for his work and can be reached at [email protected].

Update December 7, 2015: The Public Citizen Hugh Adami has now published his article about this incident in the Ottawa Citizen. Please be sure to read and comment!

Being a licensed plumber and former part time assistant professor in the subject, City Hall recently served me a valuable lesson.

Over many years it seemed to me that bureaucratic rules, restrictions and codes were far more difficult to deal with than many of the challenges involved in meeting a client’s specifications for a plumbing job.

Acquired Skills, knowledge and experience far outweighed the educational requirements to qualify for and pay for a licence to practise fixing burst pipes and unplugging drains and sewers. My last plumbing job involved a garden hose pipe that a critter had punctured. My specifications did not allow me to set traps for such without a CITY permit.

The valuable lesson recently learned was that we have smart meters where the human side of that enterprise is such that we pay for those electronic signals in various ways beyond their presumed utility. The question is who do the meters belong to and what is their purpose, utility and effectiveness. Who really benefits and who pays the cost in the long run.

The meter is the revenue tool of City Hall. It is a Control Device used for measuring the volume of water flowing into your plumbing system. It is the device’s reading on which sewage charge are calculated  and billed. In short anything that passes through the  meter carries a 117% sewage levy, whether the sewer system is used or not.

The revenue and billing department is a recipient of the wireless readings from the meter in your plumbing system.  Indeed the meter readings are monitored remotely by others for “various” water supply, planning, budgeting and other “information management” reasons. All those staffers utilities and associated costs are part of the billing rate for the Core Water Services the City provides.

The lesson learned was that the matters of cost are very debateable depending on whether we are beneficiaries of the services or footing the bill for them. In short, we really have no idea what we are paying for or what efficiencies the meters introduced into our plumbing systems. Equally so, it is very hard for the CITY to claim with a straight face that they are providing effective water and sewage services, sink holes aside.

On 13th August 2015, the revenue branch of the City of Ottawa discovered that our water consumption pattern had changed. The meter reading was taken at 12:20:30 precisely. The water consumption increase had occurred on the 6th August 2015. Allowing four days for the mail notification to arrive on August 17th before the source of the leak was discovered. A garden hose has failed. Our water loss liability amounted to close to 250 cubic meters at a WATER RATE of $1.699 or $425. In one sense the smart meter had paid for itself in terms of usefulness.

By 22nd August 2015 we received the BILL from City Hall in the amount of $1, 068.16 precisely, due and payable by 14thOctober 2015. Based on the water usage rate a levy of 117% or a further $497 was added to our water charge for a total liability of $922 payable immediately.

After having explored the costing methods used for the sewer charge none could be established. The Revenue Branch can not alter or adjust the sewer charge because the City Council establishes the sewer rate. The Revenue Branch stated that they do not have a billing system mechanism to credit our account with the sewer charge. Further the revenue Branch spokesperson claimed that the sewer charge could not be adjusted on the basis that we do not agree with the costing algorithm. Our City Councillor has no authority either and our request for adjustment was referred to the Revenue Branch for an explanation of the billing system.

Our request for latitude or discretion on the sewer charge was that the water loss did not enter the sewer system. There were no deficiencies in the maintenance of our plumbing system and sewage seepage was no more than normal internal domestic use. No matter, the revenue branch’s meters and revenue tools automated or not are entrenched.  Charges or compliance tools abound and still keep clicking along at a pace till the prescribed levies have been dispensed.

On the 22nd October 2015 A REMINDER NOTICE was issued on our WATER and SEWER Account for the balance of $946.26. We had paid our regular budgeted usage of $140 per month. The balance carries a monthly interest of 1.25% and a monthly reminder fee of $6.50 in other words the cash register is clicking along at a levy of close to $ 20 additional a month or $40 per billing period.

Now as for method of payment the City Hall does not accept credit card payments. They offer alternatives such as service termination at a fee of $35 and a subsequent $86 to turn your water off each time. You can transfer your liability to your property tax bill for a fee of $35 or submit to a collection agency for a fee of $35 with its attendant outsourced harassments.

We will of course pay our water Liability as well as our normal water and sewage two monthly charges as we have done for many years. Apart from the flabbergast that the City has no latitude to adjust rates is absolute nonsense. That or a City Councillor has no authority to intervene when Councillors set the rates in the first place is preposterous. Something down the sewer does not smell right.

The Revenue Department spokesperson informed me that there were “LOTS OF LEAKS.” Only the City will be able to say what a lucrative employment tool and source of revenue that is. It is hardly in their interest to alter or repair leaky sink hole when they operate on a cost recovery basis for their services. It is hardly fair for us to complain with all the services we receive from them. It boils down to the fact that we are responsible for our PLUMBING SYSTEMS.

As a former public servant who has worked in Supply Management and Government Services under five different Prime Ministers, the business case for all these “MECHANISMS” does not pass the technical COST and BENEFIT smell test.  The water rates were increased and tied to the sewer system because of “Infrastructure problems.”  Now Good Lord we all know on a discretionary basis that the ROYAL SWANS can’t be expected to swim in polluted rivers, and need a $50,000 shelter, especially with all the infrastructure “promises” and commitments to deficit financing flying about. The optics are telling.

To be fair the senior city staff spokesperson referred me to the City Websites to illustrate that Figures associated with the costing exercise for 2015 could be found in the 2015 Operating and Capital Budget – Tax and Rate Supported Programs adopted March 11, 2015 by City Council. Further more, details on water and sewer fees and the challenges to cost recovery could  be found on the City’s website at Rate-supported programs (water and sewer).

After a quick review as a Professional Administrator Certified by the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators in Canada and the United Kingdom it seemed to me that the programs were based on outdated material and missed the fundamental questions any client would have. Where does my little contribution of $466 for sewer services that were not received fit in?  More importantly, Why is it that the City seems to be expecting its clients without “sewage seepage” to pay for services they have not used or received?

To be frank my water did not travel over 2,4500 miles of sewage pipeline and various processing and elevation stages to the sewer system to end up in the atmosphere in 2007-2010. It ended up there naturally in summer 2015 by natural science no greater than that involved in boiling an egg for breakfast, higher education aside. No evidence based policy or environmental assessments, at a cost, is really necessary when it comes to common sense.

My water loss happened in 2015 and it never even entered the sewage system. One fact was very evident in the reference material was that the City states quite clearly water and sewer reserves are funds transferred from operations to reserves that enable capital requirements to be funded on a CASH BASIS. Good Lord, it seems 2016 proposed budget is no different, if my interpretation is correct.

The bottom line is we pay and we don’t know for what, we can’t fight CITY HALL, we can’t enter without bamboozlement and we face a further 6% water and waste water rate increases in 2016. We also know that City Council Priorities won’t be interrupted. It seems one of those PRIORITIES clearly enunciated is the CITY faces challenges in its water and sewer programs. The Council  is also clear that the City faces “FINANCIAL” challenges in it water and sewer programs

The council priorities are to implement new user fees and explore opportunities to generate revenues from current services and these will occur following the establishment of City Council Priorities. They state publicly that increasing user fees and charges in line with COST OF DELIVERING THE SERVICE will be critical to meeting the goal of finding efficiencies. The City  has set a target of achieving $8 million in new revenues, in the aggregate and contextually speaking. These factors have nothing to do with whether or not  the responsibility for the maintenance of my plumbing rests with the property owner.

If nothing else City Hall is in need of some help. A $40 million deficit in the current fiscal year, a reduction in the Ontario provincial contribution of gas taxes because the funding formula is tied to falling passenger estimates. OC Transpo has revealed it is running an $11.5 million deficit. It seems that growth is not always what it was expected to be and service rate structures are like nailing jellies to the wall. Yes, it is true you cannot fight City Hall, nor can they move any more quickly or focus beyond needs and wants, smart meters electronic mechanisms or not.

Water and Sewer charge are soon to be subject to rate review. The only thing to worry about is whether or not my credit rating will suffer in the meantime. My normal water consumption is back to one half cubic meter every two months. My plumbing consultation rates have doubled. My winter electric and heating budget is in shreds.  We all know who pays and we still do not know how much, whether on fixed incomes or not!

My only recommendation for all the other EXPERIENCED LEAKERS is based on the fact that smart meters and the rate structures are not all they are cracked up to be. The folks who set the rates need to hear from us. They need to be challenged and they need to be held accountable.

Editor’s note: Kevin Murray’s article from March 17, 2016, “Ottawa City Hall – Waterfalls and Windfalls” is a fitting companion piece to this letter.


Kevin Murray-Mourne is a former Trade Commissioner for Space, Aerospace, Defence and Security with the Department of External Affairs and International Trade Canada. He is a Veteran of Her Majesty’s Armed forces. He attended the Canadian Centre for Management Development, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Institute and is a Graduate of the American Management Associations Management Program.

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