April 10, 2013

Septic insurance could ease upgrading costs

As published in The Erin Advocate

Searching for practical wastewater options in Erin, it is obvious that septic systems will be part of the urban landscape for many decades to come.

After all, the Town has a tradition of doing some major things only partially. For example, did the people who planned our municipal water system ever imagine that a portion of the urban population would still rely on well water more than 50 years later?

So, what if Town Council, at the end of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study, decides that its "vision" for Erin's future definitely does not include sewers, at least for the homes that exist today?

Or, what if they want sewers, but can't get enough infrastructure funding from the federal and provincial governments to make them possible?

Or, what if the Town allows the downtown core to tap into a Solmar sewage plant, but never gets around to expanding the system to the rest of Erin village and Hillsburgh?

Or, what if the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) decides the impact of climate change will make it impossible for the Credit River to handle sewage effluent in the future? (Assuming too that they don't force us to build a sewage system, which they could also do.)

Whether you think sewers are a good idea or not, everyone can probably agree that the Town needs to make a commitment one way or the other, fairly soon.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that if we want to take the non-sewer route, mandatory inspections of septic systems could help convince the MOE that we are capable of dealing with our own waste in a responsible manner.

If the Town commits to no sewers in existing neighbourhoods for the foreseeable future, many property owners may see their way clear to upgrade or replace old septic systems that are not functioning properly.

Standard septic systems will not be allowed on most smaller lots, so some people will be looking at costs of more than $25,000 for a higher-end system. And of course, there are no amortization plans or infrastructure grants for septics.

One possible way to ease the financial blow of septic replacements would be a self-insurance system, funded by everyone with a septic tank, and administered by the Town.

I don't know how much everyone would have to chip in to make it work. You would need a high-priced consultant to figure that out. But for the sake of discussion, let's say it could be $200 per year, added to your taxes.

That might seem expensive, and intrusive, especially if your septic system is new. But consider that I'm talking about an alternative to a sewer system that has a starting price tag of $65 million. Sewers would mean every road in town eventually being torn up, a debt of $20,000 to $30,000 on every property, hook-up charges and a perpetual sewer bill.

I do want to make it clear that I am not an expert on septics or insurance, and that a septic insurance plan is not a proposal that is being considered by the Town right now. I'm simply bringing up the topic, and saying that a communal problem might require a communal solution.

Your mini-sewage treatment plant would still be your private property, but if the Town brings in a widespread inspection system, you would be obliged to make sure your system continues to meet the standards of the Ontario Building Code.

Thinking through how this might work, your septic surcharge could entitle you to two things. The first is a basic mandatory inspection, including a full pump-out, every four years or so. This is something you would otherwise have to pay for at the time.

The second is the right to apply for and receive a subsidy when your septic system is failing. There is a basic fairness to this, since every property will need major septic work, sooner or later. It is a recognition that wastewater is a public health issue, whether it flows through a sewer or not.

The insurance subsidy would not pay the bulk of the cost of replacing a septic system. It would simply ease the pain by a few thousand dollars. The exact amount is something for the high-priced consultant, but I'm thinking that it might vary depending on how much money is in the fund. It would have to be set up to never run a deficit.

Is anyone with me on this? If we end up with a two-tier system (Solmar lands with sewers, and the rest without) are we prepared to do what it takes to make it work to our best advantage? Let me know, or send a letter to the editor with your views.