Saturday , November 28 2020

Welcome to Bancroft, Ont. Where residents are charged $ 2,400 bills

OTTAWA – Every month, the mayor and councilors of Bancroft, Ont. meet at club 580, the city's older club.

The members bring their coffee and sit around plastic folding tables set up in a temporary horseshoe. On January 9, 2018, the meeting started as usual until they heard some rebellion outside. They looked up from their papers and tablets to see about two dozen residents through the front doors.

The session was closed to the public, but the group "Gnomes for Justice & Equality" wanted to enter. It was cold. And they had some thoughts to share with the city council about its yearly water hike.

They knocked three times. The councilors looked at the protesters. No one took a step.

Someone outside tried to open the door. It was unlocked. The group of middle-aged and seniors crashed the meeting. They had a question: roll back the insurmountable water and the sewer rate increases.

Then, the mayor got a glimpse of scissors in the hands of a protest named Joyce Dale. He and five board members fled the space of the anger cities. They headed to an adjoining kitchen and locked the door and averted hope of dialogue.

Dale, an Anishinaabe woman, said she was hampered by councilor's reaction.

"We have a ritual when things die: We cut our hair," she said in one video of the confrontation. "And I believe today, humankind, humility and all these councilors do in that kitchen – something is dead in our society."

Dale raised scissors for her head. "So here, give it to them." There was gasping as she chopped her salt-and-pepper braid, throwing it on one of the plastic tables.

Isabella Carapella / HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

Bancroft is a rural municipality in eastern Ontario hidden in the northern tip of Hastings County. From the center it is a 2.5 hour drive east to Ottawa; 30 minutes to the northwest you come to the bottom of Algonquin Provincial Park.

In 2016, the city council approved an average increase of 53 percent of the water and sewer rate. About 900 addresses within city limits – homes to be connected to the municipal water system – were affected by the tariff amount.

The increase was an unpopular move.

In Bancroft, income is on average $ 33.460, which is about 30 percent lower than the provincial average of $ 47,915.

This is the kind of evidence they need to see.Carissa Card, Bancroft resident

Suspended residents shared photos of their bills on Facebook. A photo showed a $ 523.72 water and sewer bill for a single family unit for three months. Another invoice featured $ 719.20 for a two month billing period. "There are still some people who do not believe that the water / sewer rate is increasing is a big deal," reads the caption. "This is the kind of evidence they need to see."

The city will cut off water after a few months of unpaid bills. If accounts are in arrears, it will tackle the taxes on back taxes. After two years of overdue payments, a newly changed city permit allows the city to seize the property.

"It's been tight," said Carissa Card, a mother of three boys aged 6, 5, and 2. Ready to eat Jell-O and pudding packs were their favorite snacks – and the first thing dropped from the grocery list.

The resident said her husband earns $ 18 a month. Time working full time at a rust removal company. His salary covers most of their monthly expenses, including $ 1,500 rent and about $ 1,500. $ 250 for hydro bill.

Cards receive $ 1,600 monthly from Canada's child benefit to help raise children. But she said about $ 250 of it's going to pay for water.

She shares a copy of her water bill dated December 27, 2018. It is due $ 620 due. Card wants the city to show its mercy to fighting families and lowering rates.

"I want them to understand how hard it is to afford to put a meal on the table for all three children plus keep a roof over their heads and have running water."

Isabella Carapella / HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

Others also struggle to fill their fridges, pantries and cupboards. The food bank knows this. The use has increased by 300 per cent. Since the water and sewer prices nailed in early 2017.

"When you get behind it can be very difficult to catch up," says Wilma Brethour, a social activist who sits at the city's finance committee as a citizen along with three advisors.

"It's the poor who are really hit here."

Mayor Paul Jenkins was in the heated meeting last winter – and in the locked kitchen with councilors. He said they fled the protesters for security reasons. At that time, he had been in the job for just over a month and entered the role after his predecessor left.

The bill hiking, he said, has also affected him.

Before rates jumped, Jenkins said his monthly water and sewer bill accounted for about $ 120 for his two-person household. Now he and his wife pay about $ 190 for the same bill, an increase of 58 percent.

"We're still not happy about that, but we also work hard and do everything we can to make you know how to come up with a solution," the mayor said in an interview. "But we are limited in what we can do."

* * *

Tourism drives the city's economy, so it is not surprising that the municipality's largest industry is retail, which is responsible for 255 jobs, followed by construction, with 200 jobs, according to Statistics Canada.

The city entices Bancroft's summer visitors to stay with an exciting slogan: "You hear here."

The population spreads older. The average age here is 49, according to 2016 census data.

People living in Bancroft say they love how peaceful it is.

Nearly 3,900 people call the city home. But it changes in the summer when the quiet landscape swells with at least 40,000 cottagers. They travel through the city's three traffic lights to get groceries at No Frills, buy bags of chips, burgers and maybe some corn if it's in season.

Some locals believe the population is actually smaller. They say the current number includes people who moved away last year – people who found new homes in municipalities with cheaper water and sewer prices.

Isabella Carapella / HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

Identifying the reason why people leave is not difficult. During this tired community, just follow the water and sewer pipes back to Bancroft's wastewater treatment plant. Designed in 1974 and expanded in 2011, it was an expensive and poorly planned project, which the residents are now on the hook.

In 2003, one of the last pieces of legislation adopted by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Government under Ernie Eves was the Food Law. One of its provisions attempts to ban the spread of untreated septage – essentially to keep human and animal waste from being pumped from septic tanks and sprayed onto agricultural land.

The law was intended to prevent another Walkerton, where six people died after Ontario's city water supply was contaminated with E. coli. Nearly half of Walkerton's residents became ill during the outbreak. It was Canada's worst public health disaster with a polluted water supply.

In Walkerton's succession, the governments of Canada pursued new laws prevent the spread of septage near municipal wells to avoid E. coli contamination.

Watch: Remember Walkerton's E. coli outbreak

To make it worthwhile for municipalities to stop dumping untreated waste on agricultural land, the Iranian and federal governments encourage municipal officials. Existing wastewater treatment plants were eligible for increased funding if they included new plants for the treatment of septage.

Bancroft had a water purification plant – and by acknowledging a revenue opportunity, neighboring communities and the province were able to expand its existing facility to service the entire North Hastings region (population: 12,000).

Documents show neighboring states, including Hastings Highlands and Limerick Village, signed statements that some of their tax revenues will support the running costs of Bancroft's expanded factory. The more users on the system, the lower the cost for everyone.

In 2005, it Canada-Ontario Municipal Municipal Infrastructure Fund awarded Bancroft $ 6.4 million to the expansion project. Designers and engineers were hired for draft plans to increase the plant's waste water treatment capacity to handle 10,000 septic tanks.

At that time, the Ontario Liberals were led by Premier Dalton McGuinty for two years in their mandate. Unexpectedly, the part of the nutrient law that had a mandate for septage treatment was scrapped. It created a domino effect. Nearby municipalities saw no reason to send their septage away for treatment. But expensive upgrades were still needed for Bancroft's factory to meet new provincial guidelines.

The municipalities that cooperated with Bancroft were basically bailed out. Bancroft City Council was left to find out how it could pay for a turbo-sized facility it no longer needed, but wanted to keep as a possible revenue stream.

In spite of the province, which changed the septic law, which forced the city to restructure the plant, its financial responsibility – and remains – with the municipality.

* * *

Danny Palmer and his 13-year-old son use egg timers when they shower. Seven minutes each. It is one of several methods that widows have come to save money, as his water and sewer bill tripled two years ago. Under current rates, his annual bill is over $ 3,000.

"I only wash clothes on Saturday, and I do most of the washing in the scrubber," he said over the phone from his home in Bancroft. "And I only use the washing machine to flush them out because I don't want water in the sewer. And I take the water and throw it outside in the yard so it doesn't go into the sewer system and costs me money."

The former miner and working homeschools his teenage son who has special needs. Palmer pays even educational supplies. This year's curriculum costs $ 600.

It was easier to cover basic needs when his wife lived, he said. She received $ 1,200 in monthly disability payments. The family took care of Palmer and worked three part-time jobs: sheds at No Frills and on Canadian Tire and took night shifts at a gas station. He made about $ 2,200 a month, which he considers very good income for Bancroft.

"Not great, but you know."

Isabella Carapella / HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

Palm trees, 52, also receive disability payments now. For the last seven years he has been treated for cancer. The father of seven does not work much longer when his body goes through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Money has been stretched since his wife's sudden death in 2017. Palmer tells a joke, but there is sadness in his voice. He says he should have been the one to go.

The long-term math is not promising. His monthly $ 1,300 handicap check cannot cover everything including mortgage payment, taxes, food, "astronomical" hydro bills or medications not fully covered by Ontario Health Insurance Plan or Ontario Handicap Support Program.

High water and waste water bills have also hit the city's elderly people, who make up almost one third of the population, especially hard.

"They have to choose whether to buy their medicine to keep them alive or to eat food on their table or pay for electricity and water," Palmer said.

Something has to give for those with fixed incomes, and Palmer decided some time ago that it would be the water and sewer bill. He hasn't paid it in half a year and estimates he's around $ 5,000 in arrears.

He's upset the city council doesn't show much empathy. He seeks to understand where justice comes in.

"They know that 80 percent of the population is older and low in income. And because we are the ones in town, those on the rolls of taxes and water, we are the ones punished for it," he said.

They must choose whether to buy their medication to keep them alive or to eat food on their table or pay for electricity and waterDanny Palmer, Bancroft, Ont. living

Come May, it will be two years that Palmer's bills are in arrears. He's busy repairing the family home so he can hopefully sell it before the city takes it. He shows that he could go away with $ 80,000 after the sale and move with his son to Thunder Bay, where he investigated a property boasting $ 380 in annual fees.

His current home used to be his grandparents' old farm. Palmer explains that he is the only sentimental soul in the family who wants to hold onto it.

His mother used to live nearby, but she moved when her church left town last year. Both she and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided that the bills had become too high and unsustainable to justify the stay.

Palmer's mother now lives 17 kilometers west of Cardiff, Ont., Where her annual water and sewer bill is $ 1,100. Palm trees are billed three times in Bancroft.

"I was raised here," he said, adding that he would love to stay. But there's no way he can pay the $ 5,000 debt and still make ends meet. "The water bill and the sewer is the straw that broke my back."

* * *

When the neighboring North Hastings municipalities were withdrawn from the water supply plant extension project, officials and engineers were rushed to design it and reduce the capacity from 10,000 tanks to 2,000. The city had to pay nearly $ 700,000 for the new design.

The total budget ballooned to $ 11.5 million. Minus public funding was the city responsible for paying $ 5 million – 10 percent more than originally expected.

It is against the law for Ontario municipalities to bear operating costs deficit. The city of Bancroft was forced to take out two long-term bank loans.

The plant was designed to handle a larger capacity to accommodate population growth. The logic was simple: for the plant to actually make money, there should be more users who paid to use it. More people needed to move to Bancroft.

But it doesn't happen at all. Recent census data indicate that growth is stagnant: The city's population in 2011 was 3,880 and increased by one in 2016.

* * *

There are 533 municipal wastewater systems throughout Ontario. They serve large metropolitan areas as well as rural areas; They range in size, condition and operating costs. Wastewater produced by Toronto's 2.7 million inhabitants are treated by four plants. Others serve smaller populations, such as 313 people in northern society Latchford.

With the province Cities are shrinking, and aging water-related infrastructure that needs repair or replacement, small municipalities feel the economic pressure on maintenance costs.

Bancroft does not generate any income from its expanded wastewater treatment plant. It has been a drain on municipal finances since 2011. The city paid the Ontario Clear Water Agency, a third party operator who managed the factory until 2017, approx. $ 500,000 more than what it charges from sewer bills, according to Bancroft This Week. Veolia Water Canada, Inc. is currently operating the factory.

And there are operational problems. More money down the literal drain. Bancroft This week, the city reported having a seven-figure debt worsened by problems associated with the treatment facility. Users have allegedly been left over due to rainwater and runoff seeping into sewer systems. Ca. 40 percent of the treated water is lost before it reaches the city's carpets through leaching. But there is no money to replace pipes.

Isabella Carapella / HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

The government raised the flag many years ago about the mass delay in critical maintenance of the province's water systems. In 2005, Ontario published its Waterproof report notes that 11 billion. USD in necessary repairs is a "serious and growing problem" for the municipalities. It said $ 30 billion to $ 40 billion would be needed over the next 15 years to update water and waste water infrastructure.

To compensate for worst-case scenarios, the report authors suggested that municipalities "keep systems in good working order and save water," adds "Ontario Governments should also look for ways to reduce costs and moderate rates."

Seven percent of the city's tax revenue is used to cover the plant's operating costs.

"We subsidize it when we really don't have to," Mayor Jenkins says. "We could definitely spend that money on other infrastructure projects, roads and bridges and things of the kind …. it has an impact, it's not a question."

Prices shot up in 2017, despite the fact that plant expansion was packed in 2011. Some residents say the city council took too long to alleviate the problem; Others believe that it is not aggressive enough in demanding provincial assistance.

Time runs out, explained the city's resident Jo-Anne Reynolds.

"In 2015, our wastewater rates were $ 2.61. In 2018, they jumped to $ 5.69. That's unreasonable," Reynolds says. The activist works with the North Hastings Community Trust, a law firm focusing on poverty and social justice.

"It's not a reasonable inflation rate, five percent is one thing. One 100 percent [increase] – With another increase in 2019, people will move. Businesses are going to close. "

Hairdresser Tammy Lynn Vardy & # 39; s business uses a lot of water, and the increases have increased significantly to her overhead. Her January-February 2016 bill was $ 313. It jumped to $ 952 for exactly the same billing period in 2018.

A report written last year by the city's former CEO Hazel Lambe asked the Ontario government to pay for the economic mess it created.

It is not a reasonable inflation. Five percent is one thing. A 100 percent [increase] – With another increase in 2019, people will move. Businesses are going to shut down.Jo-Anne Reynolds

"How the wastewater treatment plant project came out was no fault at all in the city of Bancroft," it says. "Respectively, the city of Bancroft requires a $ 1,444,340 repayment to compensate the city for unfavorable and expensive decisions made for the city by the province."

Queen's Park has not yet recognized its role in Bancroft's financial problems.

"The high costs we have to drive are not sustainable, especially rural areas," Jenkins says. "We feel that rural communities are treated a little like second-born citizens."

The federal provincial fund that awarded Bancroft $ 6.4 million to upgrade its plant no longer exists. It was a five-year initiative that ended in 2009th

Ministry of Infrastructure Spokeswoman Sofia Sousa-Dias said in 2008, when the program was active, Bancroft applied for $ 1.2 million to help pay design costs to a smaller factory. Rules prevented the request from going through, she said.

"The province and federal government could not meet these requests because of the limitations of the overall federal-provincial agreement that did not consider cost overruns."

Because plant upgrades ended in 2011, the city is not eligible for current provincial infrastructure financing to help pay for finished water and wastewater projects.

"The city could submit an application for a new project," said Sousa-Dias.

Bancroft officials say their plan is now to focus on courting more residential and commercial developers – more users on the system. But with the current water and sewage rates unchanged, it has been difficult to sell.

Walmart had considered opening a store in the Bancroft store, but backed out after deciding it was not a feasible choice.

Bancroft has among the highest prices for water and waste water in the province.

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Bancroft's water and sewerage rise has highlighted another problem: lack of affordable housing.

Before Palmer stuck to the idea of ​​moving to Thunder Bay, he sought his home town for alternative housing. But the possibilities were slim, let alone in his price range. And if he found anything, chances were the expensive water and sewer bill would follow him. "Only people coming up from the cities can afford to live here," he said.

There was no point getting into one of Bancroft's 60 low-income homes, which are subject to the same high interest rates.

His son is not fond of the idea of ​​uprising, but he understands that his father chooses to make the hard decision to leave. Palmer said he was initially very sour and bitter about the situation. He now focuses on selling the house before the city can seize it.

Nostalgia is set in. When he was 12, he used to help his construction worker grandfather build huts in the area. He jokes about all the years he spent making groceries at night to avoid the tourists during the day.

His grandparents' home has been a peaceful place to live, he said. But they are "memories I can take with me."

The widow shares more about the northern property he plans to buy if he can sell it. He calculates land and house construction would cost $ 94,000. It is an unorganized neighborhood so no building permits are required. They can build whatever they want.

"It's your property, no one ever comes in and moves you out of there," he said.

He drops details of the future he has planned. The house will be off-grid and self-supporting, set on 160 acres, their 160 acres, with timbre and mineral rights – and access to their own freshwater supply.

There is no question of water and sewerage bills.

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