Dawn McCulley is not going down without a fight.
McCulley, a former Parrsboro town councilor, and other residents of the community are vowing to continue their battle with the Municipality of Cumberland over what they consider an exorbitant increase in their sewer rates.
This despite a compromise by the municipality announced at its June committee of the whole meeting on Wednesday night that will see the 2019-20 sewer rate charge set at $575 per user from the proposed $975.
“All this is, is a band aid,” McCulley said. “People are still very upset. We were dismissed at the council meeting and I found the warden and councillors were just rude. They wouldn’t answer any questions we had.”
Several dozen Parrsboro residents attended the meeting to voice their concerns and frustrations at the large increase in their sewer rates brought on by a sewage treatment facility that came in $4.4 million over budget.
The meeting became rowdy with several interruptions when finance director Andrew MacDonald began to explain the issue and some of the options staff was offering to council to alleviate the situation.
When the residents left the council chamber they found three RCMP officers outside in the lobby.
A lack of communication seemed to be the key issue.
“We feel like we were railroaded into this, there was no warning. We were blind-sided, no one was telling us anything. It was, boom, ‘here’s your tax bill and you have to pay.’”
McCulley said residents knew back when the town existed that a new sewage treatment system was needed to stop raw sewage from going into the harbour by 2020. Residents were told it was going to cost approximately $8 million to build the new system, but the actual cost of the project was $12.7 million.
She said the source of the frustration was a lack of communication from the county. It wasn’t until residents received their tax bills they discovered the $300 sewer rate they thought they were going to be charged had jumped to $975.
“We’re going to meet with (Cumberland South MLA) Tory Rushton and they’re going to reach out to the federal government and Municipal Affairs to see if there’s more money,” McCulley said. “This is far from over. We realize people have to pay their taxes and pay for services, but we weren’t asked if we wanted to amalgamate with the county and we were promised all this wonderful stuff. We were a town that was never in the hole. We had a million-dollar surplus and all of sudden, bam, we’re more than $4 million in the hole.”
McCulley, whose home has its own septic system, won’t have to pay the $575, but she said there are a lot in the community who will have to pay and for some it’s going to make it difficult to maintain their properties.
“If they don’t fix this, we’re going to face the same problem again next year when the new tax bills come out,” she said. “There was a lady there last night who said she has worked so hard for her town and she didn’t know if she could afford to continue living in Parrsboro.
“They think they calmed us down, but they didn’t calm a lot of us down. There are still a lot of people upset about this.”
During the meeting, council decided to base the community’s per unit sewer charge calculation on the previous year’s budget, resulting in the deferral of approximately $357,000.
Properties in the existing service area will be assessed at the same unit value as 2018-19 while properties with buildings in the expanded service area will have unit values assessed only if hooked-up at the time of billing.
Besides revising the per unit service charge, the county will continue to charge a flat rate of $50 for vacant land or buildings not connected in the existing and new service areas.
It’s also going to request financial assistance from Municipal Affairs regarding debt costs resulting from the market value increase of construction over the original budget, develop a capital funding policy to identify how future infrastructure projects are funded and develop a communications plan and public engagement strategy on future projects.
There will also be one bylaw for all county-owned sewer systems with all sewer system service areas to be reassessed based on the revised bylaw. All property owners will also be advised in writing of their sewer assessment appeal process by Dec. 31, 2019.
“We recognized that our decision-making in the budgeting process has caused concern in the community of Parrsboro. It is our sincere hope as a council that changes and steps forward identified tonight will make for a more equitable solution, not just in Parrsboro, but as we move forward as a municipality,” Warden Al Gillis said in a news release following the council meeting.
On Thursday, Gillis said the solution is only temporary.
“We are trying to help the people of Parrsboro and we no doubt need to make better efforts to communicate with them and we apologized for that last night,” he said. “We have to go in search of more funding for these huge projects and we are going to be going for assistance for the feds and the province. Both feds and the province want all these things done when it comes to sewage, but they have to step up to the plate with some more money.”
He said the upper levels of government are mandating things to municipalities but they’re not supplying nearly enough money to cover the cost.
“Little municipalities cannot afford to pay millions and millions of dollars,” he said.
Area councillor Norman Rafuse, who represents the former town, understands the frustrations and agreed there was a communication breakdown. While some area residents, such as McCulley and others are still angry, Rafuse said the response he received Thursday was favourable.
“The people I spoke to were very happy with what we have done (to change the sewer rate), some of them were our biggest critics,” Rafuse said. “We hope to receive some more provincial and federal money. Hopefully that will take some of the pressure off.”
Rafuse, who said he too pays a significant tax bill for his properties on Main Street, admitted there was a lack of communication.
“Myself, I’m ecstatic because I’m one of the biggest taxpayers on Main Street,” he said.