Council votes to increase water utility deposits by $100 at June 1 meeting

New tenants will have to pay an extra $100 for on their utility deposits, a move city council hopes will help cut down on the number of unpaid water bills.

City council voted by a 6-1 margin on June 1 to increase utility account deposits from $150 to $250 for non-property owners. Property owners currently do not pay a deposit.

The motion also updates the new water account application forms to give landlords access to the Utility Account App, which allows them to receive notifications about overdue utility accounts.

“The taxpayer is getting frustrated with costs, and part of our problem is people who don’t want to take the responsibility of paying their bills,” said Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick. “That’s a problem that we have, and residents that I’ve talked to in my ward are tired (of it). Some of them are paying $5,000, $6,000 or $7,000 in property tax, and they pay it … and they’re tired of people not paying their bills.”

“I think we do need to stop dancing around the issue,” Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski added. “We do have … millions of dollars in unpaid outstanding utility bills, and when people skip out on those bills, the rest of us are left holding the bag.”

According to a 2018 report, there is more than $1.4 million in unpaid utilities bills from 4,657 accounts. The oldest account dates back to 2007. City administration say 4,080 or those accounts were renters, while the remaining 557 were property owners.

Things have improved little since then. A new report brought forward on June 1 shows utilities continuing to have the highest unpaid balance out of all city accounts.

“People are taxed to the hilt and they’ve had enough,” Ogrodnick said during the most recent city council meeting. “They want other people to start kicking in … (and) making a contribution as well.”

City council reached the decision after consultation with local landlords. The Saskatchewan Landlord Association (SKLA) gave a vote of confidence to the decision, calling it a “proactive oversight mechanism” that would help decrease the number of unpaid bills.

“The recommendation provides a strategy that gives the City the opportunity to manager (its) receivables in an efficient manner so that utility services remain sustainable into the future,” reads a letter of support from SKLA executive officer Cameron Choquette. “Our landlords are pleased to support this measure and continue to provide rental-housing for the people of Prince Albert.”

Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp was the lone councillor in attendance to oppose the decision. She said council needs more evidence before making a decision, and worried that renters were being left paying for a problem created by tenants and property owners.

She also argued council should hold off making a decision until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was wrong to charge new tenants an extra $100 for something that was vital for public health.

Through March, April and May, 262 new water utility accounts were created, which amounts to roughly three or four per business day.

“The new accounts are not substantially lower than a normal month before COVID,” she said. “We still have new water accounts being opened and we’re still reaching into members of our public’s pocket to have an increase of $100, and we don’t even know (with) the arrears, how much of that is tenant based and how much of that is property owner based.”

Lennox-Zepp tried to introduce an amendment during the June 1 meeting which would have delayed the deposit increase until after Saskatchewan’s state of emergency concluded. The motion died on the floor for lack of a seconder.

The debate over increasing water utility deposits has been lively and tense. When council debated the motion during a May 25 meeting, Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody blasted “a certain councillor” for creating motions that were not in good faith. Coun. Lennox-Zepp responded by saying she did not seek headlines, and honestly believed every motion she brought forward was good for Prince Albert residents.

“I just feel as though I have a gun put to my head here, because if I don’t vote for this, it makes (it look like) I’m a terrible citizen, that I’m just awful to these poor people,” Cody said during a debate on one of Lennox-Zepp’s water utility deposit motions at the May 25 meeting. “You know what? I have as much compassion as the next person has in this council chamber, and I practice it as well, but I don’t like the fact that every week we come along and we’ve got these water things coming here—with COVID as one part of it—and we are made to look like people who don’t have any compassion.

“I don’t like it. It’s terrible…. I want the public to know that these motions are not put up here—I don’t think—other than for one reason, and I’m not going to enunciate the reason.”

“Every motion that I’ve made in this council chamber for the last four years is because I want the motion to pass, period. Stop. Absolutely and totally,” Lennox-Zepp responded. “That means last week, that means the week before, that means tonight. I make motions because I believe that they should pass and they are in the best interest of the community.

“I respect how the vote (goes). That’s part of a democracy, but people elected me as an elected official, and I have a right to make these motions and not for it to be inferred that I am making these motions for an alternate purpose.”

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