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SLRD resident calls in BC Ombudsperson over water charges

Rate up in Pemberton North by 111 per cent in 2013, investigation launched



A Pemberton North resident, frustrated by a 2013 water rate increase of 111 per cent, has taken his concerns to the office of the BC Ombudsperson, which has launched an investigation.

Scott Gillis, who lives on Taylor Road in Area C of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), said he felt forced to take his case to the ombudsperson after his rate jumped from $324 in 2012 to $684 for 2013.

"I'm just one of these guys who got a letter in the mail that says the water went up 50 per cent last year and 111 per cent this year," Gillis said.

A representative of the ombudsman contacted him on April 17 and said they would be passing on his concerns to an investigative team "to see if the Village of Pemberton (VOP) and the SLRD are following their own guidelines." The investigation will take several weeks.

"(The representative) told me that all they could really do is give recommendations but if the recommendations aren't followed they can go public, but that's rare," he said.

Gillis learned of the increase in a March 28 letter from the SLRD that was sent to Area C homeowners who live near the village. He then spoke to SLRD and VOP staff and wasn't happy with what he heard, so he took it to the province.

"What I said to the ombudspeople was that if they had increased our hydro by 111 per cent arbitrarily people would lose their minds," Gillis said.

He was told to ask other Pemberton North residents to get in touch with the ombudsperson's office with their concerns.

"They would be happy to go to bat for a bunch of other people. I asked if I should encourage other people to call them and they say 'please do,'" he said.

Gillis said his neighbours are worried by the increase. "A lot of them don't know where to go or what to do. A lot of them don't even know who to talk to, they throw up their hands and resign themselves to it," he said.

A spokesperson for the ombudperson's office said they normally get involved when local avenues are exhausted. She said they became involved in a case against the City of Richmond in 2004 concerning water-metering charges being unclear to residents and leading to overcharging.

"Like anything else I want to know what's in the bill? What's the justification? If there is a good reason then that's fine, I won't have a problem with that," Gillis said.

In September 2013, Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy told his council that Area C water usage per property was triple that of the VOP. Gillis wasn't convinced.

"The nuts and bolts of it for me as a taxpayer are that I live in an 800 sq. ft. house with one bathroom and I am paying the same rate as somebody with a 3,000 sq. ft. place... My wife and I are pretty water conscious," Gillis said.

His frustration is the public end of a long-running dispute over the water rates that flared in 2007 when the VOP raised the rates for the bulk water service it has provided to Pemberton North since 1990 from 52 cents to $1.04 per cubic metre.

The VOP and the SLRD are currently in negotiations over $448,938.19 in outstanding and unpaid fees and interest for the period from 2007 to Sept. 30, 2012.

The final reading of the VOP's Termination of Water Service Bylaw No. 717, 2012, which would provide the legal mechanism to allow the village to terminate their agreement with the SLRD, is currently deferred pending talks between the two.

At the regular council meeting of April 16, Sturdy confirmed that the discussions were ongoing.

Suzanne Lafrance, the SLRD's director of finance, wrote to Pemberton North residents to let them know that water bills would be mailed out on April, 15, 2013. The rate increases took effect on April 1.

The 2013 water rate charge to single family residences, apartments and mobile homes in parks is $684 (up from $324), for each room in a B&B $361.20 (up from $171), school works buildings will be taxed at $2,394 (up from $1,134), for commercial garages $1,311 (up from $621), for each RV campground space $133.20 (up from $63), mill and light industrial sites $865 (up from $409.50), Swimming pools and Hot tubs $114 (up from $40), and detached out buildings $608 (up from $288).