Dr. Saad Jasim, manager of utilities for the City of White Rock, with Mayor Wayne Baldwin at last spring’s announcement of $11.8 million in federal and provincial funding for arsenic and manganese treatment facilities for city water. (File photo)

Information flows following White Rock’s water-utility-price agreement

Critics ‘have egg on their face’ following announcement, says mayor

The City of White Rock has agreed to pay $13.4 million for its water utility.

The price, undetermined for two years, was disclosed in a news release issued at 8:45 a.m. Monday.

Reaching an agreement was a pivotal moment for the city, Mayor Wayne Baldwin told Peace Arch News.

“It’s huge. It really is,” he said. “Finally, we can actually talk about it.”

The city announced its intention to explore acquiring the water utility in March 2013. The acquisition itself took place in October 2015 without a purchase price.

At the time, an advance payment of $14 million was made – council documents from July 2015 note the payment was anticipated – and the city said it would negotiate a final purchase price and, subsequently, head to arbitration.

That arbitration was booked to proceed later this month, Baldwin told PAN. However, a deal was signed “about 10 days ago.”

Epcor has now reimbursed the city the $600,000 difference, Baldwin added.

And while the city and Epcor had signed a three-year confidentiality agreement that essentially muzzled details of the purchase for three years, Baldwin said that with the cheque now in-hand, the details are fair game to share.

“They wanted us to keep it all confidential,”he said. “This is a public entity, we’re not going to (do that). Now that the deal’s consummated, it’s out.”

In the news release, Baldwin said negotiating the final purchase price “took a lot longer than White Rock council wanted, but we also had the best interest of White Rock taxpayers in mind.”

In June 2015, he told citizens who turned out for an update on the negotiations that they were “not going well.”

Monday, he told PAN that the process never improved.

“It’s been like pulling teeth,” he said. “Four years – it shouldn’t have taken that long.

“They were reluctant partners in the first place, because they had a cash cow. Since they were unwilling partners, they were unwilling negotiators.”

Reached by email, Epcor spokesperson Tim le Riche did not comment on the flavour of the negotiations but agreed that reaching a consensus “has taken longer than either of the parties would have liked.”

Despite that, “we are pleased that process has been completed in the manner that was agreed upon by both Epcor and the City of White Rock,” he to PAN Monday.

Le Riche noted that Epcor’s first consideration to the communities it serves is public health.

“Our activities in White Rock… were approved by the regulator (BC Comptroller of Water Rights) and done in collaboration with the Fraser Health Authority who also works to protect public health. We were focused on enhancing water treatment and adding water infrastructure (Total Water Quality Management Plan) including addressing arsenic and manganese levels,” he said.

Baldwin said that treatment could have cost Epcor about $14 million; a cost that would’ve ultimately been borne by the taxpayers. Instead, the city’s cost will be about $2.8 million, due to $11.8 million in federal and provincial grants acquired earlier this year.

Documents related to the acquisition and negotiation were also released Monday morning, and have been posted to the city’s website.

Lack of access to the paperwork has been a source of contention for residents over the years, as the city argued its release would jeopardize the city’s position in the negotiations.

The documents show that the city had been willing to pay up to $15 million for the utility. Had Epcor known that, they would’ve held out for the full amount, Baldwin said.

One resident who took the release refusal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner won the battle last May, with an order for the city to provide access to all of the withheld information.

But while the city had continued to fight that order, requesting a judicial review of the decision, Baldwin said that fight is no longer necessary.

“We’ve had to endure four years of keeping our mouths shut, people taking shots at us,” he said, referring to criticism lobbed by some regarding when the information would be released, why it was being withheld and just how high the purchase price was predicted to go.

“It’s nice to see them have egg on their faces, the people that said that,” he said.

He described finalizing the ownership as “a banner day for the city.”

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