'Blatantly unfair:' Storm of discontent at public meeting over new Halifax Water stormwater fee
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Anger over a new stormwater charge ran as deep as a backed-up drainage ditch at a public information meeting attended by hundreds of rural HRM residents.
More than 200 people came to the St. Margaret’s Centre Tuesday night to get clarification from Halifax Regional Water Commission representatives on the stormwater runoff fee, which the Utility and Review Board approved as part of the utility’s rate hike application last April.
Water commision chief financial officer Cathie O’Toole told the crowd the fee isn’t technically new, but a redistribution of the $10 million annual maintenance cost of the stormwater system.
“The structure…is to make it more equitable in terms of ensuring that every property that is receiving some service will pay for a portion of the service,” she said. “There are properties who have been receiving service for 17 years that haven't received a charge.”
Many of the residents who attended the meeting, organized by area councillor Matt Whitman, aren’t HRWC customers and were caught off-guard by the appearance of a bill in the mail earlier this month.
There was confusion, skepticism and – as the meeting went on - heckling over O’Toole’s repeated explanations that anyone who benefits from stormwater infrastructure – such as ditches, culverts or catchbasins – was considered eligible for the charge.
“If I thought for a minute I was receiving the service, I wouldn't have any issue paying for it,” said Westwood Hills resident Troy Hulme. “I don't think that I'm receiving this service and I don't believe that anybody in Westwood Hills is receiving this service.”
O’Toole and HRWC engineer John Sheppard emphasized that anyone who feels they should be exempt from the charge can appeal it, something 1300 people have done already.
But several speakers – and audience members – said that approach was backwards.
“What I object to, as a semi-retired lawyer, is the shotgun approach you've taken,” said one Westwood Boulevard resident. “You've simply fired out bills to everybody in sight and you're relying on them to hold you to account. That's blatantly unfair.”
O’Toole said the rate structure could be “refined” down the road to link the charge directly to the amount of impervious area per property, rather than the current approach of using an average figure for all residential properties.
But resident Pamela Lovelace summed up the feeling in the room that refinement wouldn't be good enough.
“The only option, I believe, is for the residents of Hammonds Plains to stand together and petition the UARB,” she said, to loud applause.