January 20, 2016

Should rural Erin help pay for urban sewers?

As published in The Erin Advocate

When building a sewer system, the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan study emphasized the need to hook up all urban residents, to divide the cost into smaller portions.

Severe restrictions on how much treated waste will be allowed in the river, however, are limiting the total urban population to 6,000 people. Unless the Town can have the rules relaxed, “serviced” growth will total only 400 new homes.

Mayor Al Alls is looking for ways to raise that number, though he makes it clear that these are ideas that may or not be approved by Town Council or the Ontario government.

One strategy is to provide wastewater service to only the older homes and allow newer homes with good soil conditions to carry on indefinitely on septic systems. This would create three tiers of housing: rural (private wells and septics), urban partial (public water and private septics) and urban fully serviced (public water and wastewater).

Say for example that half the homes in the two villages were exempted from wastewater service. That would be about 800 fewer existing families sharing the cost, but presumably this would be offset by developers being allowed to build 800 additional homes.

Normally, the cost of a wastewater system – construction and on-going use – is paid only by the people who are actually hooked up, just like the water system.

But what if everyone in the town, including rural residents, helped to pay off that debt – maybe over 30 years? That’s what Alls suggested in a recent interview – again, just his own opinion.

“The way I see it, it’s a user pay system, but the initial construction and base of the system will be a Town-paid system,” said Alls. Several residents at last week’s public meeting objected to that idea, but the mayor did not respond in detail, saying only, “If it’s not affordable, we won’t build it.”

He points out that septic tank owners will benefit from having a local plant where tank pump-outs (septage) can be dumped. But even if there were a cost saving, it would be minor compared to a share of a huge loan payment.

The Town at large has already paid some $650,000 for the SSMP process and is looking at up to $200,000 more per year for the Environmental Assessment. Is that a precedent that can be extended to construction of a sewage treatment plant?

There are, of course, indirect benefits to a sewer system, if it provides desirable population growth and economic development. And it’s true that most people already pay for lots of government and school services that they don’t personally use.

That might not be enough to convince rural residents though, who are already paying for their own waste systems. What about new residents on serviced lots – will they have their full share of the sewer system cost included in the price of their homes, creating a huge cash flow for the Town? And what if we allow some new partially serviced subdivisions, where new residents would be paying for high-tech septic systems? Should all of these people also help pay for the wastewater system through their taxes?

There may be a scenario where extra contributions from rural residents, developers and new residents could help solve our wastewater problem, but the possibilities should be researched in the near future. The plan needs to be fair, in the public interest and legally defensible.

Town Council must ensure that a full analysis of financial options is included with the discussion of technology options in the next phase of the Environmental Assessment.