It was a decision that was made with all of council holding their nose, metaphorically.
At the meeting on Feb. 6, Bashaw town council voted 4-1 to increase the price of water and the base charge effective immediately.
That sets the cost of water at $3.47 per cubic metre — up 31 cents from 2019 — with the base charge going up to $30, a jump of $5.
Discussion of the new pricing structure took about an hour, while providing feedback to administration on what should be included in a new and up-to-date water bylaw consumed another hour. Meanwhile, the rest of the agenda was done within about 30 minutes.
The new rate will help cover the cost of the water that has not been accounted for — just over 27,000 cubic metres, about one third of the amount of water the town was charged for by the Highway 12/21 Regional Water Commission for 2019.
“This is the option I dislike the least,” said Coun. Rob McDonald.
“I would like to see a smaller increase and I know we would have to subsidize it through taxation. But, I think that would give the town a better incentive to find where that missing water is going.”
Like the rest of council, McDonald hoped there would have been other options presented that would have seen a more gradual increase in pricing.
“Do we have to go there all at once?” he said in reference to the town recovering the total cost for water and distribution.
“Hypothetically, we aren’t likely to lose that much water this year. So, let’s take a step forward, first find out where that water is going and bring the consumption into line.”
Coun. Lynn Schultz was the lone dissenting vote as he did not want the base charge to be increased.
“I don’t like it. If you use it, you pay for it. That’s just another way of subsidizing people who use more,” he said.
“I don’t think it is fair to the person who doesn’t use very much. It makes the price of water look bad, but sooner or later we are going to have to get there.”
Meanwhile, Coun. Rosella Peterman sees the situation from two angles.
“We keep the water costs low then pay for it through our taxes, then it’s kind of hidden and easier for people to swallow. Or pay it in the water where we each have an option of trying to use a little less,” she said.
CAO Theresa Fuller put forward the four options that were on the table with price increases ranging from 77 cents to $1.15 per cubic metre. The base charge would stay the same in one option, while in the other three options it would rise between $2 and $5.
“If we can track and account for the water and match it closer to what we are buying, it’s a better situation for the town,” she said.
“That was one of our mistakes in the first year — we are buying this much so we are going to be selling that much. That’s when we realized there was a financial shortfall.”
Another mistake was also not knowing there were a number of town facilities that weren’t being metered, as the town was previously on well water so no thought was given to how much was being used.
There was a lengthy discussion amongst council and administration about whether to have administration go back to develop more options, then bring it back at the Feb. 25 meeting.
However, after about 15 minutes of debate, council resigned themselves that a decision needed to be made that night. It was mostly over concerns the town would face a funding shortfall with other options and that the first billing period would have to be done with the old pricing, compounding any possible shortfall.
Further questions from McDonald on unaccounted for water, facility usage and pricing led to Fuller making a pair of adjustments that were palatable to the majority of council and finding consensus on a new price option.
The first was decreasing by half — 24 to 12 — the number of new water meters purchased and installed annually, while the second was an increase 2020 water consumption by 7,000 cubic metres to 72,000. Fuller did warn the town risks the water utility being underfunded with the change.
It did take council a bit more discussion before passing the option with the lowest water rate and a slight increase to the base charge.
Council also discussed a questionnaire as council looks at developing a updated water bylaw.
Fuller explained the current bylaw is in desperate need of an update as the town needs to gain more control over consumption, as the community has not been on well water for a couple of years and unaccounted for water is costing the town a lot.
“Having a bylaw that is legal sound is important as council looks at adjustments and pricing,” she said, noting it would help to justify the reasons for those changes.
“We need to be proactive and identify that our current bylaw as a tool is not the most functional while absorbing more costs than we should be.”
The seven questions focused different areas were designed to draw feedback to fill a template that would help in drafting a new bylaw.
Fuller added the other option available would be to have a law firm come and discuss these questions then draft the bylaw that would be brought back for approval.
Council determined it would be quicker and easier for council to pour over the questions during the meeting.
“If the template is easy to work with and achieves what we need that would be the way to go,” said Coun. Peterman.
While the rest of council agreed with that direction, Mayor Penny Shantz asked if this way didn’t work, could the town still go through a law firm.
Fuller explained that if council found the process too complex or onerous, then engaging a legal opinion would still be manageable.