Stormwater Fee not Fair for Some Taxpayers

A year ago, Council agreed to change the method used to collect the tax required to operate Cobourg’s Stormwater system.  Instead of it being included in the regular tax bill, it would be added to the Hydro/water bill issued by LUSI.  Further, the tax would now be called a “charge” and would vary depending on a formula intended to correspond to usage – except that the formula has a major flaw. The thought was that stormwater run-off would depend on the type of property and its area but it did not consider properties that made no usage of stormwater services such as acreages.  As a result, some properties have been billed charges that are simply not appropriate.  To make the case for this to be fixed, Colline Bell and members of the Woodward family will make a presentation to Council at their Standing Committee meeting on 10 January at 1:00 pm and probably again at the Council meeting on 31 January.

Colline has supplied her planned presentation (see Resources) but here is a summary:

  • The first thing to note is that billing by LUSI has been “paused” because of “errors” but this is an unrelated problem – there has so far been no public acknowledgement that the formula is wrong.
  • The specific properties belonging to the delegation are:
    • 8817 Danforth Rd East 2.6 acres – no water, sewer or stormwater services; grounds are mostly grass and gardens minimizing runoff; midtown creek runs through property and takes runoff; billed $318.52 so far (expect 3 more at this amount)
    • Woodward property 93 acres – south east of Greer/Danforth; 60 acres farmed;  no drainage into the town’s storm sewer; projected annual fee $15,000.
  • Large properties with “green infrastructure” actually contribute to stormwater management
  • A petition has been created online (using change.org) and has gathered 500 signatures – 246 from Cobourg residents and property owners; there are also 13 handwritten signatures from Cobourg residents and property owners;
  • Colline has contacted councillors Mutton, Burchart, Barber and Bureau and met with Mayor Cleveland.
  • She has also tried to contact Director Wills with no success.
  • A comparison has been made with Municipalities:  Ottawa, Guelph, Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, and 24 others.  See presentation for details.  Many take into account absorption rate. [However, Director Wills has said that this would be considerably more work and require additional staff].
  • Recommendation is to simply cap the fee at $200 per year for residential and rural properties for 2023 and 2024.  (Or the Town could revert to collecting amount required as previously – that is, via the tax levy).

The agendas for January’s Standing Committees are now online at escribe here.

If the Standing Committee agrees to review the formula (e.g. accept the recommendation), their recommendation will go to the regular council meeting on 31 January.  There would also be a relatively minor impact on the fee charged to all taxpayers.

Resources

Delegation documents
Draft Presentation
Change.org Petition

Cobourg Blog
Town to now start billing Stormwater Fees – 9 October 2023

Town of Cobourg
Town Web site page announcing new fee
Link to Standing Committee meeting agenda on Town’s escribe page

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Paul
4 months ago

I didn’t pay much attention to the storm water cost as the information passed to taxpayers said most homes would end up paying less. After going thru the budget, It is evident they are going to charge $1.7 million for storm water year I can’t find a line similar to that removed from the public works budget. I am sure they looked after the pumps etc in the passed. Correct me if I am wrong but that charge is a 6 % increase when you look at a total levy of $30 million. It is quite a grab. In ten years they would $17 million to do what???

Bryan
Reply to  Paul
4 months ago

Paul,
The $1.708M SWM fee is indeed in the Works Dept. OPS budget revenue, as are $832K in SWM costs and $876K transferred to reserves. There are no budgeted capital costs. The net budget impact is $0.

The SWM budget is included in the Environment section of the OPS budget (PDF pg 98-103)

If Council decides to scrap the SWM fee, the $1.7M SWM costs would become part of the property tax levy and increase the proposed $30.939M levy to $32.646M. An increase of 16% over the 2023 levy. Any uncollected 2023 SWM fee would also have to be collected somehow (added to property tax??).

Note that the Town has not disclosed any information regarding reserve transactions and balances. I estimate that the Dec 2023 SWM reserve balance will be about $500K (assuming the SWN fees are collected) and about $1.375M including the proposed 2024 SWM transfers to reserve.

In answer to your “to do what” question, see the Watson & Associates Storm-water Asset Management Plan and Funding Assessment at the November 15th , 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting. (CTA website https://cobourgtaxpayers.ca/storm-water-management/ )

Paul
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

Thanks. My statement was misleading. It is in the overall budget this year. It when you look at 2023 and then 2024 the amount spent on stormwater repair and maintenance was about $150,000 in the budget. Now the new stormwater has salaries lines and material that are about $900 k. Is this a new set of employees so it is total addition to the Public works? Where is the information saying what they need $8 million in reserves in 10 years to repair or replace as there seems to have been very little budget during the existence of the town of Cobourg? Many of us are living in newer homes with many years of stormwater system life left. I’m would like to see a justification other than climate change and what is projected as the real costs. Maybe that exists??

Bryan
Reply to  Paul
4 months ago

Paul,

The Town’s justification is outlined in the Watson report. As with most of the Town’s infrastructure, years (decades??) of skimping on repairs and band-aid fixes have resulted in serious deterioration requiring major repairs/replacement. The Town claims that the SWM fee is not a specific usage/consumption fee, but rather a general fee(tax) to fund the entire SW system.

The Town also claims that, for the average Cobourg property owner, the SWM fee is less than the SWM cost that would have been included in the property tax if the SWM fee had not been implemented.

See the Stormwater Asset Management Plan and Funding Assessment (Watson)
This is available on the Coburg Taxpayers (CTA) website as I indicated previously

https://cobourgtaxpayers.ca/storm-water-management/

The actual SW spend in 2022 was $203,525 (SW + SW pumping)
The 2024 budget indicated that the 2023 YTD SW cost is $282,170. This is understated as this is the total of data posted up to Dec 7 2023 and the final cost will likely be somewhat higher

The 2024 SW OPS budget is $832K plus $875,626 transferred to SW reserves.

I suggest you ask Dir Wills about the number of employees etc. You could also ask members of council (Beatty, Burchat, Bureau, Darling) who originally approved the SWM fee as members of the previous Council.

Andre
4 months ago

I have 85 acres (65 presided over by GRCA) that Cobourg blocks me from selling due to an effective Constructive Taking, and it drains directly into Lake Ontario. My Rain Tax is $13700. It is what Canada has become and they are coming for you next.

Bryan
Reply to  Andre
4 months ago

Andre,
There are others in situations like yours. Join them and others who are actively seeking ways to modify the SWM charging parameters or have the SWM tax returned to its former place within the property tax levy.

Contact Colline Bell and the Woodwards in this regard. John Draper can assist you with this if needed

Colline
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

Please contact me at [email protected]
I am sorry this is happening to you!

Sandpiper
4 months ago

Anyone Noticed just how many King st Store Fronts and Newer Business have Closing out of Business signs in their windows once again.
I have been trying for years to get a Report from the Economic development Office of the Town on the Failure and Turn over rates . But they will not report , track or release those numbers .
Only Joe Scheaffer and Keven Narroway have revealed the Failure rates and reasons and where let go after doing so ????
I stopped by and asked a few of the shop owners why several reasons where given
-To many street / homeless people keeps the public away
and the downtown is dirty
-Expensive & inconvenient Parking to far to access stores or pick up purchases
-Vehicle break ins
-Coburg People don’t shop down town anymore not enough Volume
-Rents and Never Ending Taxes to high in this town

retired banker
4 months ago

In addition to the unfair stormwater charges are some incorrect charges to residential properties. When the new charge came into effect I decided I wanted to know how my irregular sized lot was determined so I used MPACs on line calculations. I determined they were slightly incorrect so contacted MPAC and found out my property square footage was over 2500 square feet inflated. I then sent a request for adjustment to the town and did not hear anything so just kept sending emails. I finally had a response and a new assessment letter from MPAC. With this information I was able to get an adjustment and refund of the overpayment for 2 months from LUSI. I just wonder how many other irregular sized lots there are in Cobourg that overpaid due to MPAC’s incorrect calculations.

Bryan
Reply to  retired banker
4 months ago

retired banker,
Good for you for perusing the issue.

Most lots in Cobourg are irregular in some way. Cobourgers should not trust MPAC (or the Town) to get it right. Use the online app to check MPAC’s calculation.
You may have got your refund quicker if you had applied to the Town which is responsible for SWM the fee (tax), not LUSI, which is just the billing agent.

retired banker
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

I did send my request into the Town but could not get a speedy reply other than a work order number from them. The Town kept telling me to contact different departments and LUSI said contact the Town. It took from end of October until late November for a response and because I had the necessary document from MPAC I was advised by the TOWN to take it into LUSI. Also MPAC stated the online app is not correct as they now have an updated computer program to determine irregular lot size calculations.

Bryan
Reply to  retired banker
4 months ago

rt,

Welcome to the wonderful world of Town of Cobourg customer service:
-sloooooow response, if any
-pass the buck
-not my job
-not my responsibility
-wrong data
-misdirection
-data silos
-non-functioning apps

Part of the problem is that the Town doesn’t seem to train staff in customer service and information on the organizational structure of the Town’s operations is hard to find. Try to find Waterworks or SWM on the Town’s org chart. Further, try to see who LUSI (contractor) reports to.
The result is that a resident’s problem/complaint get bounced from department to department and the “story” you get varies from dept to dept and staffer to staffer.

But what can you expect from an organization that has no KPIs and no performance assessments.

You wrote: “Also MPAC stated the online app is not correct as they now have an updated computer program to determine irregular lot size calculations.”
Does this mean that:
-the original size you were given was correct?
-both the original and the “correct app data are wrong?
-you need to run the app again (like a roulette wheel)?
-maybe you win, or not

Last edited 4 months ago by Bryan
Bryan
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

rb,

My bad. didn’t catch the reply error soon enough.

My reply should be addressed to rb, not rt.

Sandpiper
4 months ago

Like
Every other time a department ie: Engineering or Planning is asked for
specifics and accuracy they ask for more staff a bigger budget etc etc
Its time People like Ms . Wells stared to be held Accountable if the product her department is producing
is not accurate , correct or viable especially when Council & Mayor obviously expect perfection.
Its time for a Overseer and a independent efficiency expert appointed by the public would not hurt this town either .
I would be embarrassed if I had to show up like a Proud pigeon
claiming a position on the Council roost with mistakes like this .
Council should also Stop stating we Know Nothing and Rely on Our Experts .
Get some New ones the Experts you have are obviously incompetent and should
not be relied on This is Embarrassing and irresponsible

small town Ontario
Reply to  Sandpiper
4 months ago

I agree, but one member of this current council does her homework.
Example: A few residents presented before council to request a pickleball court in the CCC area.
They were turned down, and a few years later they presented to council, fall of 2023, to have the pickleball court in a park in Cobourg. The presenters said the court in the park would meet the noise regulation as the park is in a residential area. Council at that time had the opportunity to ask any questions before they voted. Ms Mutton ask the person presenting how she determined the noise calculation. She responded on goggle. Well Ms Mutton came to the meeting with her homework complete, as they know before hand what they will have to vote on, and showed the calculation was not correct, so the request for the pickleball court was turned down.
If Ms. Mutton had not checked the information herself, I am sure all the councilors would have voted yes. Too bad she was not on council when Storm Water Fees were voted on.
We need more councilors like Ms Mutton who do not follow they lead.

Sandpiper
Reply to  small town Ontario
4 months ago

Yes she dose do her Home work and some times is Chastised severely by the Other
members of Council & Mayor when she digs a little to deep or can not get straight answers to some of her questions and Concerns .
I applaud her for her sincere Effort and Concern she has for the Town and it residents
I wish some of the others on council could put forth a little more interest and ask some
more pointed questions and stop relying on those Experts in the Background
as they obviously are not Always correct as in the Case of this Storm Water
TAX lets call it what it is .

Ken Strauss
Reply to  small town Ontario
4 months ago

I completely agree, Small town Ontario, Ms. Mutton is a critical resource! It is disgusting how several of our recently re-elected Councillors do no homework and just agree with staff. The current stormwater debacle is a good example of the result of them not doing their jobs.

Dunkirk
4 months ago

Most policy decisions in our Town selectively ignore the economic realities of our time. Stormwater is another example: a cause looking for a reason…
Our town is populated today by a majority who no longer participate in the workforce and live on fixed income. If these people purchased a property for $200k , 30 years ago, they paid over $1mm of after-tax dollars for it surrendering their bank debt. They have paid another $85k+ of after-tax funds for property tax in the ensuing period at rates justified by provincial economic growth projections that never materialize. Along the way, unimaginative tax grabs like Garbage tags. Municipal tax grabs and ancillary fees capture our attention because they are levied against assets we’ve spent our lifetime already paying for with what’s left after a series of other taxes.

As a community we have tremendous capacity and forgiveness for the most egregious of errors in municipal judgement: (ie) the ‘free’ CCC; reclaiming our waterfront from it’s key funding source-the Ministry of Fisheries+Oceans; saying ‘no’ to a truck friendly exit off the 401; saying ‘yes’ to a $100mm Golden Plough lodge and the sink hole that is V13…on and on…

We are a generous community; we show this in our support of over 70 Not-for-Profit organizations. Another municipal fee (that is subject to HST) is an insult to injury and not just another bad decision, but, one that has no consideration for the constituency. The analysis provided below, is shocking in it’s revelations.

Cobourg taxpayer
4 months ago

What annoys me as much as the financial analysis done by Bryan and Ken, is the Cobourg staff whose salaries we pay came up with this boondoggle and there will be zero accountability. Tracey Vaughn CAO should report publicly at an upcoming council meeting explaining how this mess occurred and how it will be rectified. Does anyone at town hall know what they’re doing? Will council demand an explanation, particularly the councillors who voted for this???

cornbread
Reply to  Cobourg taxpayer
4 months ago

Perhaps our CAO is out of her depth…Her job is to lead the team and keep them out of the ditch. Maybe we need a new and proficient driver.

Bryan
4 months ago

One of the rationales (excuses) for charging the storm water management fee through a separate “fee” (tax) was to make it more equitable. Owners of large properties and/or hard surfaces would pay more as would the commercial/industrial sector.
The fallacy of this last claim was addressed by the June 2022 delegations
and comments to Draper. Commercial/industrial properties pay less under the
Town’s SWM fee method.
 
Some of the absurdities have also been pointed out:
-Cemeteries classed as commercial rather than agricultural (mostly grass)
-the marina SWM area includes the harbour (water)
 
That the Town’s SWM infrastructure is in need of major maintenance is not
at issue. Waterworks (potable water), environment, (waste water) Victoria Park
Campground, marina, and Northam are all self-sufficient Town business units.
SWM is also a Town department (part of Public Works), and should also be self
sufficient, whether the “revenue” comes from grants, property taxes
or a SWM “fee”
 
The 2023 budget indicated that $1.6M was the SWM fee needed to cover the
planned SWM operations ($465K) and capital costs ($694K). But wait. This doesn’t
add up to $1.6M.
 
So true. The “revenue” doesn’t show a $576K MECP grant for the capital project which reduces the capital funding needed ($1.27M – $576K). The SWM “need” was overstated by almost $500K and transferred to a SWM reserve.
 
Had the SWM cost been included in the 2023 property tax levy, the levy would have increased by 6.3% (one time hit) in addition to the “regular” levy increase of 7%. A total increase of 13.3%
 
The budgeted SWM “fee” (tax) for 2024 is $1,702,363, a modest 3.89% increase over 2023
There are no SWM capital projects listed but SWM ops expenses have almost doubled.
A further $875K is expected to be added to the SWM reserve. The SWM reserve balance has not been disclosed.

Continued Part 2

Bryan
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

SWM Part 2

In Dec 2023, the CTA called for an end to the SWM fee (tax) and resumption of the SWM costs as a component of the property tax levy. This would eliminate the errors (billing, MPAC), administration, billing and collection expenses.

My estimate of the SWM billing fiasco cost is upwards of $100K

I’m really looking forward to the staff report on this to see how close my estimate is. I fully expect that staff will understate the costs, if they even report.

I believe that staff (and Council) wanted to avoid a double-digit levy increase and this was one of the main reasons that the SWM fee was put in place. At the time , Beatty, Burchat, Bureau and Darling were on Council and voted for this tax.

Divide and conquer.
Out of sight out of mind.
If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Last edited 4 months ago by Bryan
Aleta
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

I am wondering Bryan if the Ontario Ombudsman could help/advocate for some of the residents with their Stormwater fees. This is from OO’s website “Municipal infrastructure includes such key services as potable water, storm water and wastewater systems, snow clearing, roads and bridges. We received 133 complaints about infrastructure in 2022-2023, as well as 63 about municipal water and sewer services.” Perhaps it is an avenue that some could take?
https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/resources/reports,-cases-and-submissions/annual-reports/2022-2023-annual-report#Housing

Bryan
Reply to  Aleta
4 months ago

Aleta,
There are two aspects of the SWM issue and they are distinct from each other.

The first is the billing fiasco, which the Town claims to be addressing. We need to wait and see what the Town’s remedy is.

The second is the SWM fee (tax) itself.
-Should a separate SWM tax be charged or should it be part of the property tax levy
-are the absorption classes appropriate?
-is lot size the appropriate charging base?
-is the SWM appeal process and structure appropriate and consistent with prior practice and precedent?
-other flaws in the SWM by-law?

Both of these should be fair game for the Ombudsman

Kathleen
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

Bryan, Is there anyway Taxpayers can demand an Independent Auditor to look into increased efficiences and staff spending? And what about an investigation into what happened to the money the Feds gave the Town for the East Pier? There must be a recourse for us taxpayers to demand more accountability.

Bryan
Reply to  Kathleen
4 months ago

Kathleen,

The Town’s FS are audited, but that doesn’t do what you’re suggesting.
An FOI request may get an answer(s) to the $400K harbour repair money but may cost $$

Several years ago KPMG did an operations review and made numerous recommendation including KPIs and performance reviews. Few of the recommendations have been enacted.

Some have suggested the Town should have an “Auditor General”, similar to the Feds and Prov. The AG would report directly to Council.

As the CAO reports to Council, perhaps the CAO should be directed to do the tasks you suggested. The CAO is unlikely to have the skills needed, so outsourcing would be required. Perhaps a task force made up of residents with the required skills.

The task force or consultant can deal with specific tasks. The AG is better suited to investigating these questions and ongoing monitoring. Expect to pay an AG $125K+

Other suggestions to improve staff accountability, efficiency and spending control:
-bring back the unfinished business list to the Council agenda and make the review of items with explanations from staff part of Council’s meeting tasks.
The unfinished business list is one of Council’s most important oversight tools
-have the CAO and Directors give written reports to Council monthly, outlining the following: prior months notable events, KPI monitoring, budget adherence and variance explanations, upcoming events heads-up. These reports should be concise and avoid the fluff that permeates the current oral reports.

Last edited 4 months ago by Bryan
Kathleen
Reply to  Bryan
4 months ago

Thanks Bryan,
Gobsmacked! KPIs, Performance Reviews, and Unfinished Business reports were BASIC components in my over 40+ years in the workforce. We should have an Auditor General. It would be worth the expense -especially since we know there will be inefficiences found that will more than offset the expense.

Can Cobourg Taxpayers Association file a FOI on behalf of Cobourg residents re: the $400k?

Bryan
Reply to  Kathleen
4 months ago

Kathleen,

Possibly, but other than satisfying some curiosity and maybe some certainty, what would be gained? There’s no one left to hold accountable. No repayment or recovery of funds.

The AG idea is interesting and worth perusing.

A more immediate action would be to persuade Council to take their oversight mandate seriously. Hold staff accountable.

Ken Strauss
4 months ago

The Cobourg Taxpayers Association (CTA) raised stormwater billing questions some time ago. CTA members presented several delegations to Council when Cobourg’s poorly conceived stormwater management billing plans were first revealed. Our delegations clearly forecast the adverse results that have necessitated the current “pause”. Unfortunately our delegations were completely ignored by Council since several, incumbent, Councillors consider staff to be “subject matter experts” despite numerous examples otherwise.

See https://cobourgtaxpayers.ca/2023/12/20/storm-water-fees-again/ which includes a link to extensive additional material on stormwater management plus archived copies of our delegations.