Denley: Changes to city water bills should make us pay more attention

By Randall Denley, Ottawa Citizen, July 2, 2019

There is a certain irony in the fact that the City of Ottawa is getting consumer complaints about its new water bills and the higher charges that come with them. For years, the city water department produced big annual rate increases and floundering budget performance, but the public was largely oblivious. Now, the city has finally rationalized the way it charges for water and people are complaining.

Historically, the city’s water department has been its own worst enemy. The city continually urged people to use less water while seeming to forget that it was in the water-selling business. Water-conscious Ottawans used less than the city estimated most years, reducing expected revenue and creating deficits, which in turn led to a mounting water and sewer debt. The city continually increased water rates in an attempt to make the service sustainable, but as rates rose, usage continued to decline. Something had to be done to break this non-virtuous circle.

(...)The new water bill is pretty simple in concept, although the city spent a surprising $100,000 to explain it to the public. There is a repair and maintenance cost to have water and sewer connections to our homes, no matter how little water we use. Having a fixed cost for part of the bill is in line with how power and gas utilities charge their customers.

The new bill is not good for water misers. Those fixed charges amount to nearly $400 a year, even if you don’t use a drop of water. That charge could go a lot higher, too. The new billing regime recovers 20 per cent of water and sewer costs from fixed charges, but city council has already approved doubling that if required.

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