White Rock’s water-utility purchase prompts more questions

Purchase price not made public because 'we're bound by confidentiality at this time.'

White Rock's director of engineering Greg St. Louis addresses a small crowd at a water-utility forum Oct. 15.

The City of White Rock held a public forum last week to update residents on the status of its water-utility takeover, and while the meeting provided information about what’s to come for water customers, it also raised a number of questions.

Thursday’s forum, attended by around 30 residents, included presentations by city staff about changes to billing procedures as well as the operations surrounding the city’s purchase of the water-utility from Epcor, officially announced Sept. 4.

Following staff presentations, Mayor Wayne Baldwin told the crowd the city is “looking ahead a few years” in purchasing the water utility from the Edmonton-based company.

“The reason we’re doing this is not because Epcor isn’t a good operator,” Baldwin said. “They’ve done a very good job…. the publicly recorded numbers are that roughly $1 million is given to the city of Edmonton each year. I think that money would be better off here.”

Baldwin then informed attendees that staff would be available to answer any questions one-on-one, however members of the crowd began calling out questions, the first of which was how much the city agreed to pay to purchase the utility.

“We’re bound by confidentiality at this time, and are unable to release that information,” financial services director Sandra Kurylo responded, noting the city is making arrangements to borrow more than $14 million.

Several attendees inquired about the status of the Epcor-owned lot at 1454 Oxford St., of which 2.5 acres was sold to a developer pending rezoning from its current institutional use. A proposal for 24- and 21-storey towers at the site has been the subject of protest in the city, including a 2,000-signature petition spearheaded by opposing residents over the summer.

Residents at the forum peppered Baldwin with questions about the property, asking why the assessed value of the land has increased if it hasn’t yet been rezoned and why the city didn’t try to purchase it from Epcor along with the utility.

“We looked at it, but it’s not being considered because of the cost,” Baldwin said.

Another concern raised was the direction the city will take when it comes to disinfecting the water – a change ordered by Fraser Health in response to E.coli contamination that sparked a boil-water advisory in 2010.

Greg St. Louis, the city’s director of engineering, outlined disinfection options being explored, including the addition of either sodium hypochlorite (used by Metro Vancouver) or chloramine (used by Abbotsford).

St. Louis pointed out that the first option could result in a “lower aesthetic quality”, as the chemical reacts with manganese and causes staining of laundry and plumbing fixtures. He said staff recommend the second option, chloramine, which he described as a more stable and persistent disinfectant than chlorine that preserves the quality and reduces the taste and odour of chlorine.

St. Louis noted, however, that because chloramine is harmful to sea life, the city would be required to build de-chlorination manholes at the reservoirs to treat the water before it is flushed out to the ocean.

Resident Ross Buchanan raised concerns about the use of chloramine, pointing to U.S. studies that link the chemical with cancer.

“The EPA clearly states that there are no studies that prove the safety of chloraminated water for human consumption,” he said.

At the start of the forum, Kurylo highlighted billing changes, including quarterly billing and the addition of a hydrant levy, which is now billed with property taxes.

Rates are expected to be slightly lower under the city’s billing, Kurylo said, with the exception of this November and December, typically low-usage months, needed to cover operating costs spread throughout the year.

“In order to recoup what we need to for the tail end of the year, we have to temporarily bump the rate up a bit,” Kurylo said. “We don’t have the benefit of generating revenue from the higher consumption in the summer months.”

In discussing the operations of the utility, St. Louis said the city has made an agreement with the five certified operators employed by Epcor, who will become city employees.

CUPE Local 402-01 president Mike Guraliuk said in a news release earlier this month that the move “makes sense,” noting the union is pleased with the decision to operate the utility in-house.

St. Louis said the city is also in the process of hiring a manager of utilities, who will oversee day-to-day operations.

The city seeks feedback on the billing changes and disinfection options – a form is available online at www.whiterockcity.ca

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