Water bill increase troubles Port businesses

  • Aug. 11, 2004 8:00 a.m.

Urs Thomas, owner of the Golden Spruce motel in Port Clements, used to run a laundromat under the motel, Alex Rinfret writes. It’s a small room, with three washing machines and a couple of dryers. People would come from as far away as Lawnhill to do their laundry, and enjoy a cup of coffee at the next-door gas station while the wash was on. But Mr. Thomas put up a closed sign last week, saying that a utility bill adjustment from the village left him no choice.
The adjustment raised his rates by 86-percent and will cost him an extra $1,290 this year.
“On those water and sewer rates, right now, I can’t operate the laundromat any more,” he said. “I’m not making money. It’s a service that’s gone in town.”
According to the village’s rate bylaws, Mr. Thomas must pay $29 per month in water and sewer charges for each washing machine in his little laundromat. (He pays additional utility charges for each room in his motel, and for the small restaurant where he serves breakfasts.)
Mr. Thomas has posted a sign on the door explaining the laundromat is closed due to the massive increase in his utility bill, and urging people to call the village office if they have a complaint.
The village has not actually raised its rates – in fact, the water rates have been virtually the same for the past decade. But administrator Dana Schmidt discovered earlier this year that many businesses in town had never been billed correctly, leaving council with no choice but to send out adjusted quarterly bills. Council agreed the rates would be retroactively applied to last Jan. 1.
“These bylaws have been in place since the early 1990s,” Ms Schmidt said at a council meeting last week, which was attended by Mr. Thomas and three other concerned residents. “I can’t explain what was charged previously, but when we looked at them we tried to apply them, as written.”
Ms Schmidt said the village must follow its own bylaws. The bylaws can be changed, if council wishes to change the rates, but the new rates cannot be applied retroactively.
Mr. Thomas is not the only businessperson in town affected. Next door to the Golden Spruce, Gas Plus owner Stephen Foster said he has raised the price of a cup of coffee by 25 cents to $1.50 due to the increase in his water bill.
Mr. Foster has also closed down one of the washrooms outside, and said he is planning to close down an inside washroom. It doesn’t make sense to have more than the minimum number of washrooms when each one costs $29 per month, he explained.
Mr. Foster, who also attended the Aug. 3 council meeting, said he has no disagreement with the utility rates, but doesn’t think it’s fair to charge business owners retroactively.
“It’s very easy for me to eliminate two washrooms, yet I didn’t have a chance to do so on Jan. 1, or Feb. 1,” he said, because he had no idea that the actual rates were so different from what the village had been charging him.
Councillor Paul Waring said the village is in a difficult situation. Now that he’s seen how it is affecting local businesses, he is not so much in favour of the retroactive application of the rates, he said. However, if the situation had been reversed, and the village had owed the businesses money due to a billing mistake, he was sure the businesses would want the credit applied retroactively.
“I would be – as you were – shocked if I had a $700 water bill show up on my doorstep,” he said, adding that perhaps the village should have sent some kind of notification before the big bill. “It’s a really tough situation. We have the law, and it’s enacted.”
The correct application of the rates means the village will collect more user fees than it has in the past (no one’s bills were reduced as a result of the review). Mayor Dale Lore said that while the extra money is not desperately needed this year to operate the water and sewer systems, it will be needed down the road for improvements and upgrades. If the businesses don’t pay their fair share – as outlined in the rate bylaws – the burden of paying for improvements would fall on homeowners in the future, he said.
Mr. Thomas suggested the village look into installing water meters, so that businesses could be charged for the water actually used instead of a flat rate based on how many washrooms there are or how many restaurant seats. His own restaurant, he pointed out, is only open for breakfast, but pays the same rate as one which is open all day.
Myrna Ahearn told council members that perhaps homeowners – who now pay $18 per month for water and $11 for sewer – would be willing to pay slightly more so the businesses could have a break.
The closure of the laundromat will have repercussions for the whole town, she predicted, because once people go to Masset for laundry they will do all their shopping there.
“It’s really going to hurt a lot of people, no kidding,” she said. “There will be ramifications down the line and it’s too bad.”
Another thorny issue is whether landlords should have to pay utility charges for rental units which are unoccupied. Some have complained that they shouldn’t have to, but Ms Schmidt said there is no way for the village to keep track of whether units are occupied or not.
Mr. Lore said council will try to find a solution, including researching water meters, and will get back to the business owners in the next two weeks.
“There’s got to be a way to fix it,” he said. “No promises, but we’ll try. We’ll do the best that we can.”
Meanwhile, in Queen Charlotte, water meters will be installed within the next three years, said office manager Debra Uliana. The management committee received a Canada-BC infrastructure grant for the meters, which should help the town conserve water.