SUNDRE – A number of changes to the municipality’s fees and rates bylaw, including the addition of some new charges intended to place a greater emphasis on a user-pay cost-recovery approach, were recently approved.
Chris Albert, director of corporate services, told council during the regular Nov. 20 meeting that administrative staff monitor throughout the year how each department is faring when compared with budgeted amounts as well as how the municipality’s fees stack up with comparable communities’ services or facilities.
As per council’s direction following discussions during the recent fall workshop, Albert said the 2024 fees and rates bylaw was revised with the introduction of some new lines to place a greater emphasis on a user-pay cost-recovery approach.
The first group of fees Albert highlighted to council all pertain to planning and development and more specifically relate to the municipality’s process to apply for land use bylaw amendments, land use re-designations, as well as the subdivision application fee.
Previously, there were no fees associated with either a land use bylaw amendment request or a land use re-designation application for a single lot, he said, later adding each of those proposed charges were set at $500.
“Those are both new fees that would be established to kind of encourage development as well as ensure that we’re covering our costs,” he said.
“Our existing bylaw doesn’t break out some of the minuscule details. So, there’s kind of a larger fee that could be applicable to some smaller projects.”
The subdivision application fee, which involves matters such as land titles and engineering, is a combined rate that for 2023 was set at $1,200 and $200 – amounts proposed to be increased to $1,500 and $250 for 2024. Administration found the municipality’s costs for those services were increasing, and so felt increasing the corresponding fees was also warranted under the basis of cost recovery, he said.
The guideline administration works with relates back to the municipality’s financial framework, which essentially follows the user-pay philosophy where the cost of a utility, service or facility is to be substantially offset by the consumer, with the expense’s remaining balance being covered through general taxation, he said.
That financial framework alludes to whenever possible aiming for an approximately 60-40 split in terms of services that the municipality provides across the board, he said, adding the 60 per cent of a cost to provide a service is paid by users, with the remaining 40 per cent covered by taxes.
“What I heard at the fall workshop, was that council wants us to work harder in getting closer to that 60-40 split,” he said.
Providing additional context, Betty Ann Fountain, senior development officer, said that per the 2023 bylaw’s fee schedule, any application for a land use bylaw amendment – whether for example a request to rezone a district or simply change a single lot – would cost $2,000 plus any additional expenses that might be involved such as engineering.
However, “it didn’t seem fair to charge that $2,000” in instances when an applicant has a lot located for example downtown on an already-serviced property where there’s an existing structure in place and no engineering is required, said Fountain.
“So, $500 is cost recovery for that process,” she said.
Processing subdivision applications, however, represents a greater cost burden largely as a result of additional paperwork and consultations, she said, adding other municipalities were surveyed including Olds, Didsbury, Carstairs as well as Three Hills.
“We are at the low end” even with the proposed increase to the fees, she said, adding Olds charges $4,000 for a subdivision application alone, plus the additional cost of advertising fees and staff time presenting to council.
A few items in the bylaw outlining the cost of replacing equipment like roll-out carts as well as automatic gas as well as water meter readers were also changed to read “at-fault cost recovery” instead of a specific dollar amount, said Albert.
“What we found is because of the escalating costs, what we’d like to do is remove the specific dollar amount and put it in the fees bylaw that it is meant as a 100 per cent cost recovery,” he said, emphasizing that doesn’t apply to regular wear and tear.
“This is specifically at-fault damage,” he said. “Whatever it costs us to buy it, that’s what we’re going to be charging.”
Administration also proposed increasing fees for altered and unaltered animals.
“The amount of fees that we are collecting only covers 30 per cent of the costs that are associated with animal control,” he said, adding the municipality’s contractor for animal control declined to renew their contract at the end of the year.
“So, we are looking at doing a new contract; we are seeing those costs increase,” he said.
But even with the fee for both altered cats and dogs each going up to $20 from $11 before the Jan. 31 deadline, after which the rates increase to $40 from the former $33, the municipality remains below what comparable towns are charging, he said.
“We think this is the most reasonable amount that we can put on pet owners at this particular point in time,” he said.
Conjuring up the most conversation from council was administration’s proposal not only to increase both the flat fee as well as consumption rate for treated water, the wastewater flat fee, and gas consumption, but also the bulk water rate and the lagoon charge.
“Water and wastewater are tied very closely together. If it comes out of your tap, it goes down your sink,” said Albert.
“To each utility, there’s two ways that a consumer is charged: the first is a flat fee, the second is consumption,” he said, adding flat fees should generally be associated with debt repayment, capital repayment and fixed expenditures while consumption fees should be associated with variable expenses.
While administration proposed maintaining the wastewater consumption rate at $1.45 per cubic metre, the treated water consumption fee was increased to $2.70 from $2.25.
“There’s a lot more that has to go on with treating and distributing water versus the wastewater, which goes into the lagoon and sits,” said Albert, adding that operating costs have also been increasing over the past several years.
“But for the last five years, our rates on water and wastewater have actually remained the same,” he said, adding those numbers were brought in line.
Flat fees for both treated water as well as wastewater each went up to $23 from $21.50.
And while the flat fee for gas was set to remain the same at $26, the gas consumption rate was marginally increased by five cents to $1.50 from $1.45 per gigajoule, and the gas system improvement charge per gigajoule went up to $0.25 from $0.21.
“All the changes for these utility rates would cost the average household an extra $5 to $7 per month,” he said, adding that of course will vary among different users, especially commercial or industrial.
Despite the proposed increases, Albert said the municipality would still remain competitive with comparable communities.
Coun. Chris Vardas supported increasing the treated water consumption fee, asserting that a resident who insists on frequently watering their lawn throughout the summer should not have to be subsidized by their neighbours.
While some residents occasionally stock up on bulk water to for example fill up a hot tub, Albert said that service – as well as the lagoon dump charge – is generally used either by county residents or companies. Bulk water is a more costly service to provide and primarily ends up being used for industrial purposes, he said.
“I do believe that there should be – for lack of a better term – a penalty applied for using our treated water for non-consumption purposes,” he said, adding that if residents on average pay $5 per cubic metre of water, the bulk rate should be doubled at $10 to cover the treatment costs.
Coun. Todd Dalke said doubling that rate would be difficult to justify.
“Raising our water too high puts us at risk economically of not being a viable source for that water,” said Dalke.
Albert replied that Sundre’s rates would still be among the lower end of comparables.
“A company going somewhere else, they would be paying more; we would still be lower than what they would pay elsewhere,” he said.
Vardas had no issue with the proposed increase.
“When you’ve got truckers coming in and using treated water for a frack job or something like that, that to me should get charged to a certain degree,” he said.
“Because using treated water for fracking I think is ridiculous and we should find another source – leave the potable water for human consumption,” he said, adding the fee to dump outside sewage at the municipality’s lagoon, which reduces capacity, should also be increased.
“If they want to travel to another location – I hate to say that – but that’s their prerogative. At the end of the day, we’ve got to also take care of our residents,” he said.
Responding to a question from Dalke regarding roughly how many cubic metres of outside wastewater the lagoon treats annually, Albert estimated an average of about 15,000 m3 and added the facility process somewhere between 225,000 to 250,000 m3 every year.
When the time came for council to decide whether to approve the bylaw, Coun. Owen Petersen proposed an amendment to leave as-is the flat fees for water and wastewater.
“Flat fees, I understand the methodology and why they’re there. They also really frustrate me because when you want to make an active change in your consumption, you still get nailed with that flat fee,” said Petersen, adding he was not opposed to the consumption rate going up.
“I would much rather see, that if I want to water my lawn, then I get charged more. But right now, even if I don’t water my lawn all day long and take shorter showers, I still have to pay more.”
Recognizing the methodology behind the flat fee, the councillor expressed a philosophical disagreement and a preference for emphasizing user-pay.
“I would like the power to be in our ratepayers’ hands (so) if they want to cut costs, they can actively use less water. Period,” he said. “I would like to see the water consumption go up and the flat fee stay the same.”
His colleagues largely disagreed and countered that flat fees are an important part debt repayments. Mayor Richard Warnock said municipalities all have fixed costs that continuously increase in an inflationary economy, and added freezing those fees today would mean paying a price down the road.
Petersen’s proposed amendment was defeated with Dalke, Petersen and Coun. Jaime Marr in favour while Warnock, Vardas and councillors Connie Anderson and Paul Isaac were opposed. A motion passing the proposed bylaw as presented ultimately passed with Petersen and Dalke opposed.
Among the rates that will remain unchanged are fees for the Sundre Community Centre and the Sundre Arena as well as solid waste.