Council sets utility rates, tables pump house debate

Dignitaries tour above-ground pump house upgrades on Nov. 8, 2019. -- Herald file photo.

Property owners in Prince Albert will see an average increase of $3.25 per month in water, sewer and sanitation fees in 2020, a change that works out to an extra $39 on average for the whole year.

Residents at the lower end of the consumption scale will pay an extra $2.65 a month, or $31.80 for the year. Users at the high end will pay an additional $3.55 a month, which works out to an extra $42.60 for the year.

Prior to and during budget debates, Mayor Greg Dionne said he’s received more complaints about high utility bills than high property taxes. He’s satisfied council kept the increase as low as it could, although he wasn’t pleased with other aspects of the debate.

“I’m happy with it now because it is certainly low,” Dionne said after Thursday’s utility budget meeting. “But, I’m still not happy with the whole process.”

Dionne said he plans to order a complete review of the utility fund at the next regular council meeting because he’s not convinced it’s a good deal for the city. Originally, water and sewer fees were supposed to cover all utility costs, which include things like maintenance repairs or debt repayment, but Dionne argued it’s not working out the way they intended.

Part of that is due to facility maintenance expenses. The wastewater treatment plant alone costs the City roughly $6,000 a week in repairs. The move to monthly billing, which hasn’t been completed yet, is another. That change will cost the city an estimated $100,000 in administration fees.

Dionne wants the review completed in time to implement any suggestions in the 2021 budget deliberations.

“We were told when it was set up and run as a utility it would be self-sufficient,” he explained. “Well it’s not, so we have to ask ourselves why is it not? Is it because we downloaded too much on it, and we should have kept some of those expenditures in the general fund? Is it cheaper to operate it all out of the general fund, because we’d save administration (costs) then?

“That’s why I’m looking at it, because at the end of the day, we’ve to bring those utility bills down.”

City administrators estimate utility expenses will be almost $13-million in 2020. The biggest increase is wages, salaries and benefits, which will see an estimated increase of about two per cent, or $171,610. The current collective bargaining with CUPE 160 ab=nd CUPE 882 expires at the end of 2019. Administration also estimates that the federal carbon tax will cost another $95,330.

The City anticipates more than $14 million in capital spending costs, the vast majority of which is for the new raw water pump house. That number also includes $2.2 million for water main, sanitary and storm sewer replacement programs.

Utility revenues are expected to total around $18.7 million.

The utility budget still needs to receive formal approval at the final budget meeting in December. Budget meetings continue on Monday, Nov. 25 with the airport and land fund budget.

The lower floor of the Prince Albert raw water pump house. — Herald file photo.

Raw water pump house debate tabled

Council received quite a shock on Monday when they heard the cost to build a new raw water pump house would be more than double what was expected, but the final decision on how to pay for it all will wait until January.

Council voted to table the motion after extensive discussion during Monday’s meeting. The project will take about two-years to complete and Dionne said they likely won’t have to pay the entire cost up front, which means council has time to consider its options. The current cost estimate is around $10 million.

“Whoever gets (the contract) will never bill us that much in one year, so we’ll have no cost onto the taxpayer for next year,” Dionne said. “We’re going to work on seeing how we can fund it. We’ve got a whole year to figure that out.”

Council will likely use the $4.2 million the City received in federal Gas Tax funding, along with $1.2 million from the water reservoir project to pay for the first phase of construction. The $1.2 million is what’s left from a $7 million loan the City took out to pay for the new reservoir, which officially opened on Nov. 8.

Water Treatment Plant Manager Andy Busse — Herald file photo.

Safe and sound

Council dipped into reserves to fund at least one project on Thursday, a $35,000 security upgrade to the water treatment and wastewater treatment plants. City administrators said both facilities use the same keys, which presents a security risk if keys are lost, stolen or not returned when an employee stops working for the City.

“It’s a huge issue for us,” Water Treatment Plant Manger Andy Busse told council. “The Water Treatment Plant, we’ve had a really tough year down there with break-ins (and) vandalism. We need to make sure our staff is secure. We need to make sure the water is safe and secure for the users.”

Council voted to use the Future Infrastructure Reserve instead, at the urging of Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski. Zurakowski said council needed protect residents from rising utility bills, and dipping into reserves would allow them to do so.

“This is one small step in that direction,” he told council.

The upgrades will be in place by the end of January at the earliest.

No response from WSP

The global engineering firm that won the raw water pump house assessment project did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by the Daily Herald on Friday.

Council awarded the tender to WSP’s Saskatoon office in May 2018 at an estimated cost of $32,833.40. The company has more than 40 offices throughout Canada, including locations in Swift Current, Saskatoon and Regina.

WSP bid on both the pump house assessment tender, and the pump house design tender. Council awarded them the first contract, which came in at roughly $32,800, on the recommendation of the City’s Engineering Services Manager and Director of Public Works. They wrote that WSP “scored well in every category, showed that they have a good understanding of the project, and their submission had the lowest proposal price.” The average bid was around $95,000.

Administration did not recommend WSP receive the second contract because their bid was “extremely low.” The City’s Capital Projects Manager wrote in her report that this indicated the company must have misunderstood the scope of the work.