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Stormwater fee debate continues

Oct 31, 2015

City staff say they will keep trying to get stormwater fees that were rejected by council for the third time this month by an 8-7 margin. The charges would replace water rates as the main source of flood prevention efforts and start charging the owners of large parking lots and buildings for the runoff from their properties.

A week after the mid-October council vote the director of the city’s water and wastewater division told a public meeting that his staff “need to keep going to council to talk about the funding” arrangement which has already been adopted by London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Mississauga and other cities. Dan Mackinnon noted the increasing flooding threat posed by climate change which he characterized as “a slow motion catastrophe”, noting the 2012 superstorm “that hit Binbrook was a 1000 to 4000 year event [and] if that hit in the lower city of Hamilton we’d still be cleaning up”.

Mackinnon argued that the main reason for stormwater fees is “so everyone’s paying their share” of the growing costs of dealing with storm runoff instead of placing the main burden on “folks who are just on a 50 by 100 foot lot getting a water bill every year subsidizing all those other properties.” He pointed to private parking lots where “the contribution to the stormwater system is significant” but which don’t pay anything into water rates.

“A Costco or a Home Depot has a tremendous influence on our stormwater system and their contribution to stormwater system is significant, but I don’t sell them very much water,” Mackinnon told a meeting sponsored by the Bay Area Restoration Council. “So I don’t think they’re paying their share from a stormwater perspective.”

City staff have been trying to convince council to set up the dedicated funding mechanism since at least 2009 but so far without success with council recently rejecting even a study to determine how a stormwater fee system might work.

That rebuff was led by Lloyd Ferguson who said the fee “will be perceived by the public as just another tax” and “is just shifting money around”. He was backed by Arlene Vanderbeek and Robert Pasuta whose comments at council were limited to agreeing with Ferguson’s remarks. Judi Partridge also opposed studying a possible fee but specifically recognized that it will force malls and big box stores to cover the costs of the runoff from their parking lots.

“These businesses are going to be hit hard and they cannot afford it,” the Waterdown councillor declared. “Right now is not the time and I have to say I’m disappointed that this has come back again.”

But it will likely return, perhaps as early as the water rate budget debate this fall. The 8-7 defeat in mid-October didn’t include an absent Mayor Eisenberger who supports the move. And one of the councillors who voted against it says he was opposed mainly because it wasn’t a part of the budget process.

“If it were re-introduced in that space it’s something I would certainly consider, particularly around some of the commercial stormwater fees which were identified as not paying their fair share vis-à-vis residents,” said Matt Green. Another opponent – Scott Duvall – has since resigned from council after winning election to the mountain federal seat.

Other opponents of the change are Chad Collins and Brenda Johnson. Voting in favour of at least doing a study of fee options were Doug Conley, Jason Farr, Tom Jackson, Aidan Johnson, Sam Merulla, Maria Pearson and Terry Whitehead.

Whitehead told his colleagues they “don’t have to fear monger” and that it would be foolish “to bury our heads and believe that the stormwater problems are going to go away.” Pearson said she had previously opposed the change but was won over by staff.

“We’re looking at huge commercial properties that don’t use water as much as residences or much less, but there’s a whole component of storm management of that water that they’re not paying anything for while homeowners are paying for every drop,” she said.

Merulla suggested the vote would have been much different if Hamilton had been hit by the epic flooding that Burlington faced in the summer of 2014.

“I understand that the public doesn’t want to pay for anything, but if you ask them, these are the types of issues they are willing to pay for,” he contended. “Doing nothing should not be an option because by doing nothing we are just repeating history and making the same bad mistakes that we all criticize that we inherited.” 

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