WW council hoping to reduce wastewater costs for users

Cobden -- Whitewater Region council is exploring options to provide some relief to users of Cobden’s wastewater system from costs associated with maintaining its state-of-the-art treatment plant.

At a special meeting of council on January 10, the municipality’s treasurer, Sean Crozier, presented an overview of the township’s 2023 draft operating budget. The document projects an increase of 27 per cent to be levied to the 517 users of the wastewater system. This would be to fund an annual contribution to reserves to cover the anticipated replacement in 10 years of the membrane, a key component of the wastewater treatment process.

The draft budget proposes to transfer $125,600 this year to reserves earmarked for that future expense, to be continued annually for the remainder of the 10-year period. This would result in an increase in the monthly levy for residential units by $33.87 from $1,505.28 in 2022 to $1,911.71 in 2023, or $406.43 per year. The corresponding figures for high commercial users would be from $3,010.50 in 2022 to $3,823.35 in 2023, for a monthly hike of $67.74.

Combined with an increase in water rates of $7.67 monthly per residential unit, Cobden residents would be faced with monthly bills for water and wastewater that are $41.54 higher than in 2022, or almost $500 more per year.

Councillor Chris Olmstead said the average resident of Cobden can’t afford a $500 increase.

“I get that we have to do that (contribute to reserves) for the future,” he said. “I would like to see us put more away. But I would like to see us fund reserves from something other than user fees.” He added this isn’t the first substantial increase Cobden residents have experienced in recent years.

Councillor Joe Trimm said that a comparison with other municipalities would be beneficial.

“We need to be able to explain the differences to the residents,” Mayor Neil Nicholson said. “But a comparison with costs per cubic metre (of wastewater treated) would be more helpful than simply comparing per household costs. There are too many other variables.”

“Comparing is a great thing to do,” Mr. Crozier added. “But every municipality is unique with its own demographics and challenges.”

Mayor Nicholson noted the need for Cobden’s state-of-the-art treatment plant is driven by the current status of Muskrat Lake.

“We’re having to shut down the beach multiple times each summer,” he said. “That situation hasn’t developed just over the past five to 10 years, but we are the ones dealing with it.”

Coun. Trimm commented Muskrat Lake is “one of the jewels in the crown of the municipality.”

“We have to promote it and care for it,” he said. “We all benefit from it.”

Coun. Olmstead said Cobden is riding a wave of much-needed new development over the past two to three years.

“Cobden was stagnant for 20 years,” he said. “But a lot of those (new) people are already mortified at the increase in user fees that are coming. We need to find solutions to offset this.”

CAO Ivan Burton told council he and the treasurer need direction to look for an alternative source of funding for reserves outside of user fees. Sources to be explored include grant funding and potential revenue for services along with general taxation. Removing the reserves from the user fees would result in an increase of 15 to 16 per cent rather than the 27 to 28 per cent proposed in the initial draft of the operating budget.

However, if the reserve contributions come out of general taxation, this will increase the tax levy for operating expenses above the 4.99 per cent that was proposed in the draft document.

“That will affect the whole municipality,” Coun. Trimm said. “I just wanted to be sure I heard that right.”

“You did,” replied Mr. Crozier.

Council has instructed the treasurer to examine the option of a source other than user fees to fund the contribution to reserves.

As the next step in the budget process, the treasurer will present the draft capital budget to the January 18 regular meeting of council for deliberation, review and direction. The February 8 regular meeting of council will incorporate a public meeting where final budgets will be present and feedback from the public will be entertained. Council is hoping to pass the budget by-laws at its February 15 regular meeting.

Marie Zettler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader