Guest column/Working together makes difference in Toronto
If you haven’t been following the water rate debate in Toronto, let me explain why you should. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic example of how a group of concerned citizens can affect change in their local government. On another hand, it’s a testimony to what can be achieved when local government demonstrates a desire to be transparent and open to the concerns of its constituency. And on the third hand, it’s an analog for the kinds of issues other local communities are now facing or will soon.
For years, Toronto’s City Council has been trying to fend off major rate hikes to the water rate scale. Planners estimated future cost increases and factored in expected usage and population estimates to write legislation that would allow the department to charge for services and usage at a level that would hopefully cover all expected costs. Yet because of a number of factors outside of the city’s control — the COVID pandemic, unexpected inflation levels, population attrition and infrastructure failure — as well as some expected expenditures — such as a number of old loans coming due — the department was facing a deficit by 2024 that would bankrupt the fund.
Legislation had been written in 2018 that would automatically increase rates every year through 2023, but that legislation had been written at a time before COVID, before 8-plus percent inflation and before recent weather events. Something had to be done, so in 2021, the water committee met with a consultant to determine a course of action, and that consultant made suggestions based on industry averages and norms. The committee wrote legislation based on those recommendations and in October of last year they brought the proposed rate changes to council, where the proposal was given the first of three readings.
This first reading was when I and several other citizens first became aware of the proposal. To be fair, the meetings where the proposal was being hammered out were open to the public, and there was some discussion on the council floor, but like most communities, I and most other citizens had our attention focused elsewhere, so it was not until news of that first reading broke that I became aware and concerned.
At first blush, the rates being proposed seemed excessive and unfair as they raisedservice rates much more than usage rates, which would put a greater burden on those using less water than the “whale” users who would not notice higher service rates as much as those who seldom or never pay over-usage rates. In Toronto, service charges include one’s first 2,000 gallons each month.
I did as much research as I could using census data, the city’s online information and conversations I had with some city officials which information I included in a letter to the editor of this paper. I then created a petition asking council not to abandon the increase, but to table it while other proposals were considered. I brought the petition to council, and in a show of good faith, they agreed to table the proposal and offered me the opportunity to generate and present my own proposal. At a successive meeting, council created an official ad hoc standing for my committee, and we collected more information and presented an alternative proposal during the final meeting of the year.
In the meantime, the city’s water committee held another public forum during which they considered some of our ad hoc committee’s arguments and decided to withdraw their original proposal in favor of a new proposal they felt addressed some of our concerns. In the meantime, TIMET Corp. announced plans for an expansion it had been working on for several years.
This brings us to the meeting in December, where my committee presented our proposal.
We explained that our intention was not to allow the city to bankrupt the fund, but that we thought there were ways the city had not traditionally considered that could make the rates more equitable for smaller users. We showed how by shifting the focus of a rate increase toward usage and away from service charges, the per-gallon cost would actually be brought up slightly more for heavy users than if the increased charges were more focused on services primarily. The traditional system of raising services more than usage actually had per-gallon costs for those using fewer than 3,000 gallons going up more than for those using tens of thousands of gallons.
That chasm, we explained, between small users and whales had actually been widening year-on-year under the standard rate increase methods council had employed for years.
After our proposal, council decided not to bring the original proposal off the table and not to go forward with its own latest proposal from that recent committee meeting. This meant that the legislation from 2018 remained in effect, and in March of this year, per that older legislation, water rates in the city went up less than necessary to meet expenses. Meanwhile, in January, a handful of newly elected councilmen were sworn in, committee assignments were redistributed, and once everyone was up to speed, a new rate hike proposal was given a first reading in April.
That legislation considers many of the points our ad hoc committee brought to the floor, but it also falls short of raising enough to keep the department in the black this year. However, like the legislation from 2018, the legislation has several years’ worth of increases and, barring any unforeseen calamities, it brings the city back out of the red in 2023.
The legislation will have its third and final reading on Monday, and if it passes rates will go up in July and again in January, then there will be another increase in January 2024. All of this has the endorsement of the ad hoc committee I chair. However, this isn’t the end of the story.
The current plan is to re-examine the effects of the rate hike in the fall. By then work will be under way on TIMET’s expansion, inflation will hopefully be under control, and we’ll have word on a few other items, such as grant proposals and any updates on plans from the Jefferson County water department, which purchases some of its water through Toronto’s water department.
We also hope to explore an overhaul to the billing system. Currently, other than the county, all clients of the water department in Toronto pay the same service and usage rates with no distinction between residential customers, commercial customers or industrial customers. Our ad hoc committee advocates to tweak that somewhat.
In conclusion, I would like to personally and on behalf of my fellow committee members offer a thank-you to Toronto City Council for being receptive to our input; to Councilman Rob Bertram for creating the committee (it was not my intention at the beginning to be this involved;) to Councilman Mike Burkey for his patience and diligence in facilitating with our committee to create a more equitable solution; and to the employees and management of the Toronto water department for so cheerfully assisting our committee in collecting the numbers and information we needed to do our job. May this serve as a model for other communities to consider when faced with a need to raise fees or service charges.
(Core is a resident of Toronto.)