Are Vernon taxpayers subsidizing large "high-strength" waste emitters?
While council at its meeting last Monday approved sewer fee increases for all users, it would appear that residential users are footing at least part of the bill for what is one of the city's largest users of the system.
On Nov. 14, council endorsed an "annual, cumulative 2.5% increase for all user fees and charges identified in Sewer User Rates Bylaw #5400, and on all high-strength waste user fees and charges in the Fees and Charges Bylaw #3909, for two years (2023 and 2024)," the city confirmed in an email.
That is in addition to a cumulative 3% rate increase that council approved last year, to be implemented between 2022 and 2026.
While the city says the annual 3% fee increase "is to ensure the city's sanitary sewer reserves are maintained at an appropriate level" and the cumulative 2.5% increases "are necessary to fund the operation and maintenance of the city's new high rate anaerobic digester," at least one council watchdog believes residents are paying more than their fair share.
In a letter to council, Inge Friesen says the city's Liquid Waste Management Plan "was supposed to help save residential sewer ratepayers from having to subsidize other users.
"Instead, our council chose to fund the construction of a dedicated sewer pipe for the (Okanagan Spring) Brewery and a high-strength waste reactor, thereby depleting sewer reserves."
The brewery is believed to be the only user connected to the new digester.
Friesen says the latest increases mean residential sewer rates will have increased "a whopping 20% over the next five years, as we residents continue to subsidize not only new capital projects for high-strength waste but now also, operating funds for the new facility."
The city says the digester "was built to expand capacity and improve function of the Vernon Water Reclamation Centre by specifically addressing high-strength waste before it enters the rest of the plant's system. By building this facility, the city is able to delay the need for a much larger and much more expensive expansion of the (plant), in order to meet growing demand."
However the city's own Liquid Waste Management Plan states that revenues to fund pre-treatment expansion are to "come primarily from user-paid contributions from high-strength waste generators."
The city did not answer a question specifically asking if residential users are subsidizing big commercial users.
"Why isn't it possible for the city to apply the necessary rate increases to high-strength waste generators only?" asks Friesen. "Why are we residents again on the hook to subsidize these other users?"
She says the Liquid Waste Management Plan needs updating as part of the city's Official Community Plan review.
Friesen, an Okanagan Landing resident, says when sewer service was extended to her area, she was "100% responsible to fund my own pre-treatment. I did not receive any subsidies from other users or the city. I had to buy my own poop grinder, install it and power it forever, in order to access the city sewer system. I also paid a premium on my sewer connection due to the punishing municipal fee bylaw that adds 5% onto the connection charge every year, so I paid nearly double what it actually cost the city to put in that infrastructure."
Dawn Tucker, a longtime council watchdog who ran unsuccessfully in the recent election, said residents "need to pay attention" to cumulative increases "at a time when many people are struggling."