Higher rates led to proposed utility hike

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Low water use and increased costs of water and wastewater services factored into a proposed 2.1 per cent increase to St. Albert’s utility rates.

The proposed hike came as part of the draft 2018 city budget, which was released publicly Nov. 6.

The 2.1 per cent increase would add an average of $3.04 to monthly utility bills.

Kevin Cole, director of utilities for the city, said the amount the city pays for water from Epcor is rising by six per cent in 2018 – from 84 to 89 cents per cubic metre – while the amount the city pays for wastewater treatment is rising by five per cent, from $1.06 to $1.11.

The amount the city pays for water reflects 40 per cent of St. Albert’s overall cost of water service. That means the increase to residents’ water bills is 40 per cent of the water price increase.

Another way to explain it is that if the city pays six per cent more for its water, the water rates for residents go up by a minimum of 2.4 per cent.

Cole said one factor in Epcor’s increase is the fact water usage went down in St. Albert in 2017. As Epcor has fixed costs, using less water doesn’t mean paying less money.

“When water use goes down, the cost per cubic metre of water goes up,” Cole said.

He attributes the low water usage to a wet year.

To help scrutinize Epcor’s water rates, St. Albert has joined many municipalities in the capital region as part of the Regional Water Customers Group. The group sits down with Epcor every May to discuss the rates of the previous year.

“We’ve really taken them to task over the last five to 10 years in making sure that all of the costs that are being attributed to the customers group are accurate,” Cole said.

“Overall, Epcor is quite transparent with the costs that they put into the rate … so unfortunately there isn’t a lot more we can do other than keep an eye and make sure their costs are accurate.”

But water is only one part of residents’ utility bills. Another portion is wastewater, which gets treated by the Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission (ACRWC).

“We ship it off to ACRWC and it just makes way more sense to do that,” Cole said.

The increase to wastewater costs is fairly typical and the city expects another five-cent increase next year.

Mayor Cathy Heron, who sat on the wastewater commission as a councillor during her last term, said the commission has infrastructure projects of its own that it needs to build.

The cost of treatment for wastewater accounts for just over half of the cost of St. Albert’s wastewater service, meaning a five-per-cent increase to treatment costs would create a corresponding 2.5-per-cent increase to the amount residents pay for the service, at minimum.

To help keep rates down, at the direction of council the division did an analysis of the staff it includes in its budgets for sanitary, storm and water and juggled some over to the municipal side of the budget.

“That exercise did find us some savings,” Cole said.

Glenn Tompolski, general manager of infrastructure and development services, said the services provided by Epcor and ACRWC are beyond the city’s control.

“We have to pay for that commodity as it comes in and goes out,” he said during an open house on Nov. 8.

Tompolski said projects and staff proposed in the utility operating budget also have a minor impact on the utility rate.

The city is making its case to council for four increases to the utility operating budget: $17,500 toward a community survey on environmental issues; $50,000 for a bulk water dispensing unit; $50,000 for a curbside waste composition study; and $92,200 for a utilities infrastructure planning engineer.

Although there are currently 54 full-time-equivalent staff in the utilities division, Tompolski said there is currently only one full-time engineer managing $12-million worth of projects.

“The last few years, we haven’t been able to keep up with the work and have been carrying over some projects,” he said during a committee of the whole meeting on Nov. 9.

As for bringing the proposed utility rate increase down, motions have already been made by Coun. Sheena Hughes to postpone the curbside waste study and re-arrange some of the other projects included in the utility budget, with the rate being adjusted accordingly. Council will vote on those motions later this month.

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