The Bible says Noah built an ark in response to a flood — but a church in Napanee dealing with an unusually high water bill is seeking a more practical solution from Town Council.
At its October 24, 2023 meeting, the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee heard a delegation from St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church, where an unnoticed leak occurred in an inaccessible part of the church and lasting for months, resulting in an abnormally high water bill. Church representatives asked the Town to adjust the bill.
Town staff will present their “Request for Utility Bill Forgiveness” report to Napanee Town Council at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, and will ask Council to give direction on any future practice of utility bill forgiveness.
At the time of the church’s request, Council passed a motion directing staff to report back with clarification on past practices and options for relief. The new staff report comes in response to that direction.
The report states that, on August 26, 2004, the former Greater Napanee Utilities Commission approved a policy that authorized staff to apply sewer relief measures to customers who experienced abnormally high water consumption due to unforeseen circumstances.
The original concept behind the policy was that in order for a customer to be eligible for relief, the “excess water” must not have entered the sanitary sewer system. In essence, the customer would still be responsible for paying for all metered water consumption but would be granted relief for the sewer portion that exceeded normal averages. This would typically only happen if an outdoor garden hose ruptured or was left on inadvertently. The only other condition was that a customer could not apply for relief more than once every five years.
Then, town staff note, on March 12, 2013, Utilities staff presented a report to Council recommending that the sewer relief policy be terminated, on the grounds that the Town was still incurring water and sewer treatment costs for this lost water, even if the loss was unintentional on the customer’s end.
That report noted that in a five-year period, there were 108 instances of relief granted, even though only 10 of them conformed to the original policy criteria. The report also observed that all but one of the neighbouring municipalities offered no relief programs.
As a result of that staff report, Council passed Resolution 91.13: “That the current policy of sewer relief be terminated but the current practice of negotiating customer-friendly payment plans continue with the following guidelines: (i) that payment plans are typically upon request for abnormally high water consumption within one billing period; and (ii) that any extreme cases be presented to Council on a case by case basis.”
The report notes that the Town’s current staff’s reading of the resolution is that Council’s direction was to repeal the policy of sewer relief in all cases, but when extreme cases for payment plans were requested, that they be presented to Council first.
However, despite the above resolution, Town records indicate that 40 applications for sewer relief were still approved since 2014, with the amount totalling $14,130.29.
The report makes a special note that records indicate that in all of the above instances, the adjustments conformed to the original 2004 policy, in that they were for water leaks at residential properties that could be reasonably proven not to have entered the sanitary system. Requests for adjustments due to things like leaking toilets or other indoor appliances were not approved.
Thus, the staff report presents options on how Council could choose to proceed with the St. Mary Magdalene request.
In the first instance, Council could re-affirm the decision from March 2013 that no further utility relief adjustments be given in any case. This option has the least impact on the utilities operating budget and finance staff. Staff noted that while this would be consistent with the resolution from 2013 and practice in recent years, it would not necessarily align with actual practices between 2014 and 2021.
The second option would be to adopt a new policy to clearly define the parameters under which the Town will and will not grant utility bill forgiveness. Town staff have drafted an example of what such a policy could look like, based on examples found in other municipalities.
As was reported in 2013, such policies are still relatively uncommon, and most municipalities have a strict policy of not granting forgiveness. However, staff believe that if Council desires to offer utility relief in some instances, a policy should be adopted to ensure fairness and transparency around who is and is not eligible for a billing adjustment. Staff also note that since that report in 2013, Loyalist Township adopted a similar leak forgiveness policy in 2022.
According to the report, if Council wishes to offer relief on utility bills in the case of the application from October 24, staff recommend that a new policy be implemented to ensure consistency and fairness going forward. Staff note that “granting bill reductions in the absence of a consistent rule is more likely to lead to unfair treatment,” and they strongly advise against granting a billing adjustment for this church’s request only, due to the “perceived unfairness.”
If this option — to develop a new policy stipulating clear criteria for relief — is chosen, staff recommend that “the motion should clearly state the reason(s) why forgiveness is being granted in this instance and not others.”
The report notes the financial implications of any decision made. First, utility bills are calculated on a cost recovery model, and regardless of how the water is used by customers, the Town is responsible for the costs of treating all water and sewer that passes through municipal infrastructure. When the Town elects to forgo revenue and reduce a utility bill, that cost is passed along to all other customers in the utility system.
During the highest year of uptake of the sewer relief program (2009), the report notes that a total of $11,314 was forgiven. If a policy were to be adopted, both the number and value of adjustments would be likely to increase, as the criteria would expand to cover leaks which do enter the sanitary system, the most common of which is running toilets.
The purpose of implementing a leak forgiveness policy would be to delegate authority to staff to manage such requests within specific parameters as authorized by Council.
Council will receive and discuss the report at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. That meeting (and all other meetings of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee) can be viewed virtually or watched afterward on the Napanee Town Council YouTube channel, or attended in person in Council Chambers at the Napanee Town Hall, 124 John Street. Further information about Council meetings is available on the Town’s CivicWeb site.