The cost of rain in Victoria

A new stormwater utility being considered by the city could see homeowners pay more, business less

Stormwater management is a concept few people think much about.

Unlike the sewer utility, for which residents receive a separate bill based on how much water they use, Victoria’s stormwater system gets paid out of general property taxes.

That means people pay based on the assessed value of their property, rather than the amount of rain water channelled from their lot through the city’s aging storm pipes.

Now, Victoria is looking to follow the lead set by Edmonton, Portland, Kitchener and Waterloo, which bill property owners based on how big a burden their lots place on the city’s stormwater system.

At its heart, the change would give people an incentive to improve their property’s ability to absorb rain water, putting less pressure on the storm drains during heavy rains.

The new utility is still in the early stages. While city council has approved the idea in principle, the public works department plans to go to the public for input.

Options for incentives are one part of the plan up for debate. For instance, houses with large trees, rain gardens or sizable cisterns for rain storage could be offered rebates.

A more contentious part of the plan is how to divvy up the cost of the new stormwater utility.

Staff have proposed a model deemed more fair and equitable than the current one. It would see property owners billed based largely on the amount of impermeable surface on their lot, such as roofs and paved areas.

The shift will mean some classes of properties could see big changes to the amount owners pay for stormwater service.

For instance, tax-exempt properties such as churches will be billed for the new utility, whereas currently they contribute nothing to the stormwater system.

Low-density residential homes would pay $62 more and multi-family dwellings would pay $215 more per building.

Other classes of properties will see their bills decrease.

Commercial and industrial properties would expect an average decrease of $1,148.

The shift of the cost from business to residential worried Mayor Dean Fortin.

“Equity is as much the ability to pay as it is everybody pays the same,” Fortin said at last week’s governance and priority’s meeting. Businesses can write off their expenses, whereas residents can’t, he added.

Council agreed on one change to the suggested model which would shift more of the cost back onto property taxes, and hence increase the share businesses pay.

City roads should be included in the cost-sharing formula, argued Coun. Geoff Young.

When calculating the costs of building roads, people often fail to include the cost of managing rain runoff, he said. “If you forget the roads, it throws all the other calculations off,” he said. “You should include them.”

Coun. Lisa Helps had another concern.

The proposed utility would be billed to property owners only, giving renters no incentive to make changes, she said.

“It is true that 60 per cent of our residents are renters,” said Helps, a renter herself. “If we want this to work, we need to target renters in some way.”

Council tabled a motion to endorse the proposed model until receipt of further information. Staff aim to implement the new utility by January 2014.

rholmen@vicnews.com

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