Tiered water fees unfair to large Abbotsford families?

Bhupinder Singh Bansal has seven people living in his family home. He believes that Abbotsford’s tiered-water billing system is unfair.

Bhupinder Bansal has lobbied the city to change its tiered water billing system

Bhupinder Bansal has lobbied the city to change its tiered water billing system

Bhupinder Singh Bansal has seven people living in his family home.

He, like many residents with larger families, believes that Abbotsford’s tiered-water billing system is unfair.

Last year, in an attempt to promote more water conservation during peak use months, the city changed the billing system from annual to every two months. It also charges homeowners a higher rate when they pass certain levels of consumption.

The idea is to make residents more aware of their usage and act as a deterrent  to wasting water on non-essential tasks like washing the car and watering the lawn. Rather than banning the activities outright, council let people choose to water their gardens at a higher cost. But Bansal said most large families are hitting that increased rate just living their everyday lives.

“The tier system should be eliminated,” he said. “It is unfair. We have to shower daily, we have to go to the washroom daily, we have to flush. We have to cook, we have to wash clothes.”

Bansal understands the need to pay for water used. His bill will always be higher than a family of four or a couple living in an apartment. However, by raising the rates for higher use, he believes the city is punishing families.

“I want the city to go back to a flat rate for water.”

The current water rate is $1.13 per cubic metre (1,000 litres). In the peak use months, May to October, only the first 60 cubic metres used in a billing cycle (every two months) is $1.13. The cost jumps to $1.43 for 60 to 91 cubic metres and rises again to $2.26 for every cubic metre over 91.

Bansal’s last water bill, for a two-month period, was $224. According to the city, in 2011 an average home spent $332 a year.

He has talked with many families and they are feeling the financial crunch.

“Many are struggling with this. The economy is down, jobs are hard to find,” he said.

Bansal has been working with two associates, Musleh Hakki and Jasbir Singh Manku, gathering information and comparing notes. After more than 40 hours of work, the three men appeared before council on Monday night to speak against the system.

They were joined by a crowd of almost 100 supporters who shared their concerns.

Bansal had three requests – eliminate the tiered system in favour of a flat rate, cancel the 10 per cent rate increases previously planned, and bill people twice a year, rather than six times a year.

“It costs the city approximately $21,000 each time they send out bills.” He said the city could save money by decreasing the bills and perhaps reduce pressure to raise taxes.

Hakki said he doesn’t have a large family, but still recognizes the difficulties the system present.

“People are suffering,” he said.

But it isn’t just families being affected.

Manku told council anyone who has a secondary suite is also being punished as no provisions have been provided to account for a tenant’s water use.

After the presentations, city staff proposed some revisions, suggesting homes with large families could be given an additional 60 cubic metre allotment in the first tier. That would allow them to use 120 cubic metres before going into the higher payment level. Staff also suggested homes with legal secondary suites be given a one-tier allotment per unit.

But some councillors didn’t agree with the recommendations.

“I’m against tiered water … I think we should go back to the flat rate,” said Coun. John Smith

He said the tiered system may promote conservation, but “in the end it’s unfair and discriminatory.,”

He also said it would be difficult to monitor which homes had large families and deserved the exemption.

Council deferred the issue and could revisit it on Feb. 6.