Fernie residents can expect a bump in their utility bills, after the city council approved an additional expense to hire two new operators onto the overstretched waste management team that manages wastewater facilities.
Councillors voted unanimously to approve the $210,000 expense to hire two new operators. The expense will be funded by an immediate increase in utility rates, to be paid by residents starting in Q3 2022.
When those rates arrive in the mail, residents can expect an explainer on why utilities are going up.
For the average Fernie household, utility fees will increase by 18.4 percent to cover the additional expense.
According to city staff, this number is calculated from the number of current sewer connections (3,227) divided by the new expense, equaling an annual increase of $65.08, or $16.27 per quarter.
The need for additional staff is due to an overstretched operations team burdened with failing wastewater infrastructure. Currently, the city’s wastewater treatment facility to the south of town is open to the river to drain excess effluent. Effluent is treated to within provincial standards, and is not raw sewerage.
The facility is being overwhelmed with excess water getting into the system, a faster-than-expected population increase for Fernie, inappropriate infrastructure within the system itself, and a short-handed team that is being drawn in too many directions at once, creating additional work.
As the facility is open to the river, the city is exposed to regulatory action from the province. Additional workers are needed to help bring the city into compliance with regulations.
While the council unanimously approved the increase, Councillor Phil Iddon expressed his displeasure with the request for additional expenses being brought before them so soon after the budget process, which was concluded in March.
He said that given the problem with wastewater management wasn’t an issue that appeared in the weeks since, it could have been included in the budget package and considered in context with other expenses councillors signed off on. He also decried passing on additional expenses to households, but acknowledged the need for the increase.
“Its not a tax increase per say … but it’s a death by a thousand cuts. Households pay all their expenses out of the same account.”