Calgary city councillors reject low-income assistance for water bills

Calgary city councillors reject low-income assistance for water bills
Calgary committee not ready to open the taps for water pilot project
City administrators have developed a pilot project to help the poorest Calgarians with their water bills.

According to the city, 2,300 people who are more than 90 days in arrears on their bills currently owe the city nearly $1 million.

“Instead of us saying, ‘well, the province’s assistance isn’t enough, so we’ll just step in and do the province’s job for them’ — why wouldn’t we talk to the province from the get-go and say, ‘we’re thinking of doing this project, how would you (like) helping us?’ ” said Coun. Peter Demong.

Water billing assistance program for low-income Calgarians divides committee

In 2017, the city's water utility halted its practice of disconnecting service to addresses where bills are not paid.

“Part of the argument is that with this austerity budget that we’re looking at, we can’t afford this service — that I found disappointing,” Farrell said following Wednesday’s meeting. “Surely we can afford to help those in the greatest need.”

The proposal was presented at council's utilities and corporate services committee on Wednesday — and there was push-back.

Participants would be educated in water conservation and could receive upgrades to improve the efficiency of their toilets and faucets. Successful completion of the water efficiency part of the program would qualify the customer for a rebate on their utility bill.

Under the program, low-income people who are more than 90 days in arrears would be invited to seek provincial and community supports.

The city would assist in educating them on how to reduce their water consumption so they can save money. The city would also offer temporary bill adjustments for six months.

City assistance program will help low-income customers to conserve more water. Participating in the water efficiency program will allow eligible customers to access rebates on their bill. #yyccc

Shannon Abbott with Water Resources said earlier city programs, which allowed Calgarians to access rebates if they bought items like low-flow toilets, may have excluded lower-income Calgarians.

She told the committee about one senior on a fixed-income who revealed that she reduced the number of baths she took and would use her bathtub water to flush her toilet in an effort to save money.

Coun. Druh Farrell argued that providing safe, clean drinking water is a municipal responsibility, adding that the city routinely offers subsidies for other city services, including recreation and transit.

During the three-year life of the proposed pilot project, it is estimated the program would cost the city $2.8 million, reduce water consumption and help low-income Calgarians.

Other councillors on the committee agreed it's important to help. But they had questions about the way the pilot project is designed.

Coun. Peter Demong suggested officials touch base with the provincial government to see if it would help fund such an assistance program.

“Sometimes we don’t support something we should,” Gondek said. “I don’t want this to die at council because we haven’t provided the background.”

"Why wouldn't we go to the province and say this is a program that we're thinking of. Can we tie it into your program?" said Demong.

Coun. Jyoti Gondek said the proposal needs more work, but could be salvaged if the city looks at partnering with other organizations and governments providing similar programs.

"My concern is once we've done the pilot, they're going to turn around and say that's a great job. You should keep doing that."

The aim of this pilot program, the city says, is to provide more direct support to low-income customers with education, coaching and replacements of inefficient fixtures.

Coun. Ward Sutherland suggested administration needs to work on the specific terms of reference for the program to ensure it helps the right customers.

A proposed pilot project aimed at assisting low-income Calgarians with their water bills could be tweaked before it heads to city council for debate next month.

And while Coun. Jyoti Gondek likes the idea of the program, she said without more homework being done it's uncertain how council as a whole will feel about it.

Previously when customers were significantly behind on their bills, the city would cut off service to the household. That practice was ended in September 2017.

"You've got a council that's facing a lot of tough decisions with very little left in the budget," said Gondek.

"I think you will see us challenge other orders of government and potentially bury a project that has merit because of the times that we're in."

Administration had hoped to begin the pilot immediately, but Wednesday’s meeting saw councillors flag a number of concerns with the proposal.

Although the program was defeated on a tie vote, it will be referred to city council for further discussion.

If council approves, the pilot project is scheduled to start in the second quarter of next year and close to new applicants in early 2021.

Not all councillors agreed that the program covered territory that’s better left to the province.

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It’s not flushed down the drain just yet, but a proposal for a pilot project on a water customer assistance program for the City of Calgary failed to get a vote of approval from a city hall committee Wednesday.

The City of Calgary has a policy of not cutting off the water for people who fail to pay their bill. Currently there are 2,300 residential water customers who are more than 90 days in arrears and would be at risk of a water disconnection.

The Water Customer Assistance Program would provide water efficiency education as well as detecting and repairing leaks. It would also replace water fixtures in bathrooms.

The pilot project would be aimed at low-income Calgarians who qualify and would provide a partial break on water bills for six months. A city report to the Utilities and Corporate services committee suggests the monthly bill adjustment would range between $28 and $32 per month.

Councillor Peter Demong lauds the goals of the program but said he’s concerned about the city going it alone without provincial help.

“I’m sorry, but if we don’t approach them first and say, ‘Can you us do this?,’ we’re doing yet again what we as a city council do on such a regular basis — basically take over something that is a provincial mandate and say, ‘Don’t worry. We don’t need your money. We’re all good. We’ll adjust our property taxes or raise our rates.”

“Water is a city service and we offer subsidies on city services all the time for people who can’t afford them,” Farrell said. “This one (water) is the most essential service that we could offer and I don’t know why this would be a provincial issue.”

Farrell questions how this two-year pilot project — costing $2.8 million — could be turned down while council looks at possibly approving spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the Olympics.

The proposal lost on a tie vote at the committee and it now goes to the full council for a vote next month.