Peace River Regional District blocked an appeal to the municipal auditor general to investigate higher rural water prices outside Fort St. John Thursday, a move which the director of Electoral Area C, Arthur Hadland, called unfair and uncooperative.
However, director Lori Ackerman said water service is not in the PRRD's mandate, and complaining about the price ignores reasons for the rate structure.
Hadland said the $3 bulk rate paid per cubic metre of water by Electoral Areas and supplied to residents of the PRRD living outside municipalities, including the Fort St. John airport subdivision, is out of sync with the financial contributions they make from FairShare funds to municipal utilities and amenities. Taxpayers within city limits pay a retail price of $1.12 per cubic metre for the service.
"I don't understand it," Hadland said. "I've always taken a cooperative stance, but they seem to think they're subsidizing us, the rural communities. Really the evidence says we're net contributors to the community, we're properly part of this community, but these kinds of actions are very alienating. And I feel frustrated, I don't want to behave like this, but I don't know why the Hell they won't meet us halfway. There's no reasoning, they will not reason."
Hadland said FairShare funds contributed by PRRD electoral areas paid for two-thirds each of the Fort St. John leisure pool and solid waste disposal, plus most of the cost for the hospital system.
Hadland said he takes issue with the fact that the Peace Valley OSB plant gets a break on water rates, yet it is the largest single draw on water service.
"If you go to the traffic circle straight ahead to the airport, that's $3 (per cubic metre) and if you go right, to the OSB plant, it's $1.12."
He said it is undemocratic for the PRRD members representing municipalities to dismiss his concerns.
"Really they, the municipal people, have the power to vote on issues that influence the electoral areas, yet they're not elected by the people in the rural areas. If that would be recognized…but maybe I'm right out to lunch. I just see a lack of equitability that I think could be resolved with cooperative behaviour.
"The municipal structure I think regards the Electoral Area as something lesser than themselves and it's unfortunate."
He said he wants water rates for electoral area residents to strike a balance between the inner-city rates and the $3 they now pay.
However, Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman said the PRRD does not have a water function at all, so a discussion of prices was not within its mandate, nor was it in the mandate of the municipal auditor general. She said rates reflect the fact that the City of Fort St. John supplies and shoulders all liability for water service to the Electoral Areas.
"We don't control the development in the area so we have no control over how much water will be used or how little water will be used," Ackerman said. "So there is no potential to determine what a return on an investment would be. The whole system is owned by the city residents and so when you consider that they own it and they have made the investment in the system, they should be able to have some comfort in knowing they've provided the service to our rural neighbours and it is going to be a system that they [Fort St. John citizens] aren't going to be paying for."
Ackerman said the City also shoulders all liability for ensuring federal and provincial potability standards. "So if you look at only the price, you completely negate everything that is behind that rate structure," she said.
Ackerman said if there is development in the electoral areas that requires the City to upgrade its water and sewer systems to meet demand, the money comes from grants and reserves and represents a loss to the City.
She said airport subdivision residents pay extra for administration of billing because they get water delivery, or get it themselves from the bulk station, but are not City residents.
Ackerman said annual Fort St. John public budget consultations where water rates are open for discussion are poorly attended.
Despite the complaints Hadland said he made on behalf of electoral area residents, Ackerman said she has received only one.
"I received an email and we've asked for the Regional District to host a meeting because it is their residents, I don't have the jurisdiction to go and talk to their residents, that's not in our authority. What they want is for us to just lower our water rates and for all the reasons I've already mentioned, you can't just look at the cost of water. You have to look at the reasons behind it."