Brockville residents could see their water bills rise by anywhere from around $18 to $59 a year, depending on how much city council wants to bolster its wastewater reserve to fund a looming big-ticket project.

Council on Tuesday decided to put off for two weeks a decision on the matter, awaiting more information from staff, but most members were inclined to increase rates in order to pay for the replacement of the main sewage pumping station at Centeen Park. That project, they heard, could cost as much as $20 million.

“This is an expense that we can’t avoid,” said Coun. Cameron Wales, who initially put forward a motion to boost the reserve by $800,000.

After further debate, Wales agreed it was best to put off the vote on the water and sewer rates, and by extension the entire water and sewer budgets, until staff returns with more information.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, council was to vote on a motion approving the 2024 water and wastewater operating and capital budgets, a step in the broader budget process.

Finance director Lynda Ferguson made some last-minute changes to the main budget motion, after a late update to a wages and benefits line item lowered the totals slightly.

The 2024 water operating budget, which initially called for total net expenses of $3,524,087, now calls for $3,493,603; the wastewater operating budget net expenses similarly dropped from $5,162,699 to $5,138,451.

The motion also calls on council to approve a water department capital budget totaling $1,250,500, and a sewer capital budget of $975,000.

Immediately affecting city residents’ water bills is a decision on how to fund one key project, the $810,000 replacement of a 108-year-old water main on King Street West, from Rivers Avenue to Oak Street.

Ferguson recommended using reserves to pay for the project, resulting in a slight drop in residential water bills.

With the most recent adjustment from wages and benefits factored in, that option would reduce the minimum residential water rate by 61 cents a month. while the average monthly residential bill would drop by 70 cents. For an average two-inch commercial water meter, there would be a monthly decrease of $32.81.

But Mayor Matt Wren suggested that now would be a good time to top up the sewer reserve.

While residents’ water bills also include the sewer surcharge, the water and sewer budgets must be kept separate under provincial rules, and so the water reserve can’t be used to fund the Centeen pumping station project.

The water reserves and reserve funds are expected to have a balance of $6.4 million at the end of this year, while the sewer total, which would be available for the pumping station, is projected to be $3.8 million.

City director of engineering and infrastructure Peter Raabe noted that, when the environmental assessment was done for the Centeen pumping station replacement in 2013-14, the cost of replacing the aging facility was estimated at $6 million to $7 million.

Ten years later, post-COVID-pandemic and in an era of high inflation, the estimated cost for an above-ground facility is from $17 million to $20 million, said Raabe. Putting most of the facility below grade would cost $25 million to $27 million.

City council will host an open house public information session on the Centeen project on Thursday, Nov. 30, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., in the council chambers.

Wren compared that price tag to that of another significant city project on the horizon.

“We’re talking well into what a new arena is going to cost,” said the mayor. He added the city will obviously appeal to the provincial and federal governments for help funding the pumping station.

“But this isn’t the kind of thing that you could fundraise for, right? So anything that we don’t receive upper-tier funding for is going to need to be debentured.”

With that in mind, having more to draw from in the sewer reserve would help, said Wren.

The budget package already includes a contribution of $200,000 to each of the water and sewer reserves, but Ferguson presented three scenarios for using rate increases to top up that crucial reserve even more.

The first would increase the contribution by $800,000, for a total add of $1 million. It would increase the average monthly residential bill by $4.91, or an 8.72 per cent increase.

The second would add $500,000, for a total this year of $700,000. It would hike the average residential water bill by 4.8 per cent, or $2.72 a month.

The third scenario would increase the reserve contribution by $300,000, raising the monthly bill by $1.49, or 2.61 per cent.

Pressed by council to comment on the timing of the main pumping station replacement, Raabe said it could start as early as next year, taking up to 18 months to build, although the need for funding could push the start date back a year or two.

“I would not recommend that we continue to push this project out,” said Raabe.

“Right now staff for the last four or five years have been putting Band-Aids on when we’ve had issues there,” he added.

At some point, however, there is a risk of “catastrophic failure” at the main pumping station, added Raabe.

The subsequent debate was not about the necessity of replacing the pumping station, but rather how much to raise the rates to pay for it.

“We do have people in the city that have to choose between paying their rent and paying their heat, or paying their heat or buying their groceries,” said Coun. Jeff Earle.

Coun. Jane Fullarton, however, noted Brockville’s residential water bills are already significantly lower than in comparator municipalities, and the city doesn’t have many years to top up a reserve ahead of a project where the municipal portion is likely to be around $7 million or $8 million.

“I think it’s a prudent thing to do,” she said.

Council is expected to revisit the matter at its Nov. 28 meeting.

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