Assiginack gives Sunsite owners 1 year break on water

ASSIGINACK—The issue of increasingly expensive Sunsite water is again front and centre in Assiginack with residents of the subdivision recently receiving a letter from the municipality informing taxpayers that their water rates were again going up, this time to the tune of 41 percent.

Clerk-treasurer Alton Hobbs informed council at the April 2 meeting that they had received numerous “well composed” letters from the people of Sunsite complaining of the drastic increase to rates, noting that a meeting had been set up for Thursday of last week with MPP Michael Mantha.

The clerk brought forward a resolution that, “Council freeze the water and wastewater rates in Manitowaning and Sunsite Estates at the 2012 rates; and that the deficit for 2013 for water and wastewater rates be borrowed from reserves and a repayment schedule be calculated for 2014; and that we strike a lobbying committee with a mandate to lobby the government of Ontario to recognize the unsustainability of our current system and to provide the solution and relief for our ratepayers.”

Councillor Paul Moffat spoke against the motion. “While I feel for these people, we already put half the gas tax money (from the federal government) toward this. All this will do is make rates higher next year as rates will only get higher.”

This is the first year small municipalities will not receive the Ontario Small Waterworks Assistance Program (OSWAP) funding, which began in 2007 following the Walkerton tragedy and which benefitted Assiginack. The municipality received approximately $27,000 through OSWAP each year for five years to provide operating and capital assistance.

The councillor noted that over 50 percent of Assiginack ratepayers do not have access to potable water. “You see these people hauling water every day,” Councillor Moffat continued. “These people have water. It may be expensive, but it’s good water.”

“It’s too bad, it’s a nasty situation these people are in,” he reiterated, “but we cannot keep putting more money out of the general tax levy into this.”

Councillor Brenda Reid said she was in favour of the resolution, if at least for only one year while the municipality searches for other options to keep the rates at a reasonable amount. “A 41 percent increase? People cannot absorb these costs,” she said.

Councillor Leslie Fields noted that the municipality was forced to go to a water treatment system as it was imposed on them. “There’s got to be some other way to mitigate these costs,” Councillor Fields said. “I’m wondering if the province realized it made a mistake?”

Councillor Moffat likened the resolution to buying a car but withholding the payments for one year.

Reeve Brad Ham explained that there was no indication from the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) that the rates would be so much higher for Sunsite (Manitowaning’s rate increased by only two percent).

“If I lived down there, and I’m not on water, I feel we should do something for these people, if only for one year,” Councillor Reid added. “They (residents) subsidize things too you know.”

Mr. Hobbs explained that in February 2012, a financial sustainability report was done for both the Sunsite and Manitowaning water treatment plants. In it, the report stated that Sunsite’s was not financially viable. He said council should bring this fact back to the government as the municipality was simply following their rules, and say, ‘now what?’.

The clerk explained that the per property operating cost went from $920 last year to $1,297 this year for the 64 properties that are currently on the system.

Councillor Fields suggested having this topic brought forward at the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities’ annual meeting.

Councillor Moffat asked for a recorded vote on the resolution, with himself and Councillor Bob Case voting against the motion and Councillor Fields and Reid voting in favour. Reeve Ham also voted in favour of the resolution, breaking the tie. The motion was carried.

Alison Greenhill of Sunsite Estates has sat on both water committees and helped to organize the meeting with Mr. Mantha. She explained that the goal of the first committee was to gain more equality for water rates between the two plants and their users. Ms. Greenhill noted that OCWA has a monopoly over the water treatment plants of Manitoulin (servicing all of them), enabling them to charge uncompetitive rates.

When asked about switching to a metered system, Mr. Hobbs responded that it would change nothing, as the system is too small to allow for any economy of scale.

The second committee, Ms. Greenhill explained, sought to work with other municipalities—Billings and Central Manitoulin—to gain cost savings from OCWA. Assiginack did tender its water treatment plant services at the same time as Central Manitoulin for the current contract, but as Mr. Hobbs explained, it was a “moot point,” as only OCWA responded to the tender and no savings, just increases, were garnered.

Ms. Greenhill said she realized that Sunsite does not have enough residents to pay for ongoing costs, which is partially made up for by the fact that taxpayers without water are forced to pay for the service regardless. She also noted that the only service Sunsite and Manitowaning have in common are water and snowplowing, but they still pay for the services of Manitowaning’s residents, adding that Sunsite doesn’t get their money’s worth out of taxes.

Ms. Greenhill said the group of concerned Sunsite citizens is still hoping to resolve the issue with the council’s year-long grace period and is hoping to approach North Shore communities who are also dealing with similar situations to gather more lobbying strength and are hopeful the MPP can get the ball rolling for change.

“It’s quite understandable the level of frustration,” Mr. Mantha told The Expositor following last week’s meeting. “The high increase is a big issue.”

He explained that he is currently working on a private member’s bill that would see government help for municipalities with water treatment plants with under 100 users. The Algoma-Manitoulin MPP said he has staff working on this resolution and is looking for buy-in from both the Conservatives and the governing Liberals, as well as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.

“I do appreciate how the municipality is tied to all this,” the MPP continued. “Assiginack does not have a skilled individual on its staff to operate a water treatment plant and there are no competitive tenders on Manitoulin. Northern Ontario communities are basically held hostage with limited or no service providers.”

Mr. Mantha said from his research there are over 50 municipalities that he has learned of so far that have less than 100 residents on a system, with some municipalities having upwards of four of such systems in their care.

The MPP said he did not expect a quick turnaround, however. “It’s going to take some time to get some buy-in,” he said. “This is not a self-serving piece of legislation as it will affect much of Northern and rural Ontario.”

MPP Mantha urges municipal staff to contact him with their ideas and concerns as he is in the data collecting stage of this bill.

Alicia McCutcheon