Old sew­ers fuel city deficit

Wa­ter, sewer main breaks and less-than-ex­pected rev­enue con­trib­ute to pro­jected $261,000 short­fall

The Observer (Sarnia) - - FRONT PAGE - TYLER KULA

The City of Sar­nia is car­ry­ing a pro­jected $261,000 deficit into up­com­ing bud­get de­lib­er­a­tions, and ag­ing wa­ter and sewer in­fra­struc­ture is par­tially to blame.

“For in­stance, we had a very large break that hap­pened ear­lier this year,” said Lisa Arm­strong, di­rec­tor of fi­nance, re­fer­ring to a trunk main break on Col­borne Road in Au­gust.

It was one of nine after a storm caused power out­ages and ham­mer surges through­out the sys­tem.

So far, $200,000 has been spent on wa­ter main breaks this year, and that could rise de­pend­ing on the weather be­fore year’s end. One of the mains had been sched­uled for re­place­ment in a year’s time, Arm­strong said.

“Break and fix is def­i­nitely more ex­pen­sive than long-term plan­ning and re­place­ment, es­pe­cially with underground in­fra­struc­ture,” she said.

Aimed at off­set­ting those and var­i­ous pump sta­tion ex­penses, staff are rec­om­mend­ing fees for wa­ter me­ters jump by $600 to $700 for six-, eight- and 10-inch me­ters in 2018. They will help fund the city’s $19-mil­lion share of the $49-mil­lion Sar­nia Sewer Up­grade Pro­ject over the course of sev­eral years, she said.

The cap­i­tal pro­ject — the rest cov­ered through se­nior gov­ern­ment grants — in­cludes planned up­grades to city pump­ing sta­tions and the re­cent $9-mil­lion sewage la­goon up­grades in Bright’s Grove.

Other fac­tors be­hind the pro­jected deficit, mean­while, in­clude lower than ex­pected rev­enue at Pro­gres­sive Auto Sales Arena; lin­ger­ing pay­ments for a claim un­der the city’s for­mer brown­field tax in­cen­tive pro­gram; and higher over­time for fire­fight­ers be­cause of sick time, in­sur­ance board claims and in­juries, Arm­strong said.

“They’re hav­ing to cover the min­i­mum safety stan­dards, with the num­ber of peo­ple on the trucks. They’re cov­er­ing that with over­time.”

Those ex­penses are par­tially bal­anced out by salary and ben­e­fit sav­ings re­lated to job va­can­cies, fewer le­gal fees than ex­pected (the city bud­geted $150,000 and has spent $40,000) and fore­cast sur­pluses from tran­sit and po­lice.

Also caus­ing a hit to this year’s bud­get are fewer in­ter­est pay­ments on missed taxes be­cause more peo­ple are sign­ing up for au­to­matic with­drawals, Arm­strong said.

“There are lots of pos­i­tives as­so­ci­ated with that,” she said, “but it means . . . we’re re­duc­ing our rev­enue for the in­ter­est.”

It’s about $222,000 be­low what was bud­geted.

The num­bers are all part of the pro­posed $2.8-mil­lion in­crease to the city’s bud­get for 2018. If it goes through coun­cil un­changed, it would mean a to­tal bud­get of $139.7 mil­lion.

The pro­posed levy in­crease, in­clud­ing tax­a­tion and wa­ter and sewer rate hikes, is 4.86 per cent, or $3.3 mil­lion.

The rates won’t be fi­nal­ized un­til the County of Lambton and lo­cal school boards ap­prove their bud­gets in May.

A public in­put meet­ing on the bud­get is Nov. 20, 6 p.m. at city hall. City coun­cil de­lib­er­ates the bud­get on Dec. 5.

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