City endorses once-controversial sewer line warranty packages

·3 min read
Homeowners in Ottawa are responsible for the cost of repairing or replacing underground water and sewer lines up to the edge of their property.  (Lindsay Bird/CBC - image credit)
Homeowners in Ottawa are responsible for the cost of repairing or replacing underground water and sewer lines up to the edge of their property. (Lindsay Bird/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa is endorsing a sewer line insurance program, run by a private corporation, that raised alarms and caused confusion among residents and councillors last year.

In a memo to the mayor and council on Wednesday, a director with Ottawa's Infrastructure & Water Services Department said his staff found there's enough interest in the program run by Service Line Warranties of Canada (SLWC) that it would extend it for another five years.

"While the initial communications from SLWC to Ottawa residents raised some concerns, resident participation in the program indicates there is interest and value in the program and its services as the potential savings to residents could be significant," wrote Scott Laberge in the memo.

CBC wrote about the program in February of 2021, when homeowners began to receive cards in the mail — with the city's logo on it — informing them of the new, optional protection plan to cover out-of-pocket costs for repairs to sewer and water lines that are under their property.

SLWC, a private company and subsidiary of the U.K. multinational corporation HomeServe, had purchased mailing lists from outside vendors and sent out its insurance pamphlet under the City of Ottawa's name.

The sales campaign caused confusion. Residents turned to social media about the "suspicious" letter from the city selling insurance, while others wondered if it was a scam.

Councillors heard from concerned residents about whether they needed to sign up to the "city program," and in May that year, councillors acknowledged that the communication campaign around this partnership was a disaster, and took steps to prevent it from happening again.

202 repairs covered: city memo

In an update Wednesday, Laberge says Ottawa is among 62 municipalities in the country to endorse the SLWC program.

Since launching it, 4,002 residents in Ottawa purchased some 8,459 insurance policies, the memo states, up from the 2,300 residents who signed up for it last year.

The city also says as of early April, around 202 repairs costing $286,586 have been completed as a result of this program.

CBC
CBC

The memo states that home insurance policies typically cover damage to personal property caused by water and sewer service failures, but not the repair of the sewer line themselves.

"Without a program such as the one offered by SLWC, any repairs and their associated costs are the sole responsibility of the homeowner," reads the memo.

"To date, resident feedback on warranty work has been positive."

Lessons learned

The city says moving forward, letters sent out by third-parties who have partnered with the city will be co-branded. In this case, SLWC's logo will be more prominent and ahead of the city's logo in future letters to residents, it said.

The city also promises to make the nature of this voluntary program clearer in its messaging online, and will also give a heads up to residents on social media prior to mail-outs. There will be "clear information" on how to get removed from SLWC's mailing list on its website.

Moving forward, the city also says it will change the language in future mail-outs to remove the "perception of obligation" to the program.

"Minimal consultation was undertaken with members of council prior to the launch of the program due to external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic," the memo reads.

"Moving forward ... citywide programs involving a third-party are required to engage council through a technical briefing."

Councillors will have opportunities to read any future letters from SLWC before it gets distributed, the city says.

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