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Cumberland water rate proposal to bring fairness, stability

As it moves toward establishing a single water utility, the Municipality of Cumberland is doing what has already been done in other areas of the province, including Halifax, Cape Breton, Antigonish and Hants County.

At present, there are three separate water utilities in Parrsboro, Pugwash and Springhill. Because of this, each utility maintains its operational and accounting records separate. They file three separate financial statements, three separate rate structures and three separate water rate applications to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

“There are many benefits to having a single water utility, but one is you have more customers in a single utility so you are less susceptible to impacts such as losing a major customer or having some customers changing their consumption patterns,” Gerry Isenor of G.A. Isenor Consulting Limited said. “If you have a hundred customers in a single system and something goes wrong you have to divide up the cost among them, but if you have 2,000 customers and the same thing happens you have a much bigger pool to absorb that impact over a larger pool of people.”

Cumberland County not only wants to streamline that into a single water utility to create a more efficient water system, but it would also falls in line with the municipality’s Clear the Deck philosophy that will see the municipal unit operate – and think – as one.

As it stands right now, Parrsboro and Pugwash users are fully metered, while Springhill has only commercial customers metered.

In Parrsboro, the original water system dates to the late 1800s. It has 721 customers, 707 of which are residential. Although Parrsboro homes and businesses are metered billing is presently based on a tap count. It’s the last municipality in Nova Scotia to have use a tap county for billing purposes.

“It’s a very unique system,” Isenor said. “It’s a very complicated system and there’s no rationale for it.”

The system requires extensive infrastructure renewal, including new watermains in many streets and a water storage reservoir.

The estimated cost to operate the system over the next three years is $3.6 million while up to $10 million in additional spending is required between 2026 and 2033.

Pugwash has a newer system, having been commissioned in 2019-20.If every resident were connected, there would 386 customers and the system’s current rate is based on having 331 customers and operating costs are higher than what was estimated at the time of the previous rate hearings with the URB.

It’s a fully metered system with 193 customers – 183 of which are residential.

“Affordability becomes the issue,” Isenor said. “It was built for many more customers than it has and if you start losing customers then you go into a spiral. The more you lose, the bigger the gap gets.”If the utilities are not combined, Pugwash could have the highest water rates in the province.“The good news is their system is new and the infrastructure and maintenance costs are low, but if you take Springhill and Parrsboro they’re the exact opposite,” Isenor said. “Their future infrastructure replacement costs are very high because their systems are very old.”

Springhill, like Parrsboro, has a water system dating back to the late 1800s.

It has 50 commercial customers on meters, but 1,502 customers are unmetered and pay a flat rate for their water. Only Springhill and Stellarton have unmetered systems and Stellarton has started the process to switch.

Like Parrsboro, Springhill will require extensive infrastructure renewal including watermains in many streets and a new water storage reservoir.The estimated cost to operate the system over the next three years is $4.6 million while up to $11 million in additional spending is required between 2026 and 2033.

To ensure fair water bills in the community, water meters are needed. Water meters will also reduce consumption as users will be conscious of how much water they use. As a result, they can influence their water bill by controlling consumption.Isenor said switching to a metered system in Springhill has many benefits, most significant of which is users can influence their bills by controlling their water use.

“The biggest benefit is Springhill users will be able to impact their bills,” Isenor said. “Right now, it’s almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pay your fee and you can use as much water as you want any way you want.”

Isenor said there is a lot of water wastage in unmetered systems because there is no advantage to doing so when everyone is paying a flat rate. It also penalizes those in smaller families or seniors who don’t use as much water, compared to larger families who use a lot more water.

As well, he said, if there’s a leaky faucet or toilet in a home there’s no impetus to spend the money to fix or replace it because it’s not impacting the homeowner’s water bill. However, with a metered system, those leaks will be easier to find and address because not doing so will cost more money in billing.

“You get a lot of leaks and drips that become white noise in the house. You hear it but do nothing because it doesn’t affect my water bill. If I fix it all I get is a repair bill and my water bill is the same as it was yesterday,” Isenor said. “On a metered system you will see the benefit of fixing it right away, and if you don’t, you’ll see a higher water bill. You’ll realize fixing it is cheaper than paying more for water.”

Also, he said, meters will also help determine leakage and water loss to the system, reduce supply costs, reduce sewage system loading and will promote environmental stewardship by reducing water wastage.

The Municipality of Cumberland has submitted its proposed water rates to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. There are proposed increases in the water rates. In Pugwash it’s to offset the lower number of users and in Parrsboro its to set money aside for future renewal of the water infrastructure. In Springhill, water rates are going up but there’s relief over the horizon in the implementation of a metered system in which users can influence their bill by how much water they use.There will be a public hearing on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 at 10:30 a.m. at the Springhill administrative centre.

To speak at the hearing, you must apply by Tuesday, Nov. 29.People can also make written comments up to Nov. 29 or request intervenor status by Sept. 15 with a copy of your written evidence submitted by Oct. 24.