I wrote a bit about last week’s Council Workshop on the Capital Budget a few days ago, complete with some ugly pies. This post I am going to write about the second half of that presentation – the draft utility budgets for 2021.
As I have mentioned before, the City has more than one budget. The General Fund is all of the stuff we do to provide general City services, from parks and recreation to police and fire services to fixing potholes and supporting arts. The General Fund has a few funding sources including senior government contributions and fees related to permits or parking or fitness classes, but the bulk of it comes from property taxes. In that sense, it is the big fund that Council has close-to-unlimited authority to spend on providing a suite of services.
The Utility Funds are different, and are accounted differently. Outside of occasional senior government grant programs, all of what you pay for water, sewer, or solid waste, goes directly to paying to provide those services. No property tax is used to pay for providing those services, and paying for those services does not offset property taxes. (I am purposely putting our Electrical Utility aside, because it is unique in New West, as I’ve talked about before).
Utility rates are going up faster than property taxes. This is not because of Council largesse or pet projects, but because the cost of delivering these services is going up. To be more accurate, the cost for delivering these services *sustainably* is going up. More on that below.
I did some posts a couple of years ago that used a type of flow diagram to show what happens to the money you spend on your water, sewer, and solid waste bills. The numbers have gotten a little larger, but the proportions have stayed about the same, so the diagrams are still useful even if I don’t have the time or energy to update them right now.
Keep in mind that like all of our budgeting, the law tells us to create a 5-year budget plan. We update this plan every year, so even though we are currently looking to approve 2021-2025 budgets, we are really only approving the 2021 rate increases. The future rate increases are projected in order to inform our planning, but the rate increases in 2022 and beyond are really up to the discretion of future Councils. With that in mind, here is where we see the budgets going.
We foresee collecting just under $15 Million in water fees this year, compared to $13.7M in last year’s budget. That is about a 10% increase. Part of that will come from selling more water (the City is growing), and the rest from a 7% increase in water rates. Here’s where the money is projected to go:
Water is the money we pay Metro Vancouver for the water in the pipes. Operations is the cost of running the utility day to day (staff, materials, power, water quality testing, etc.). Capital is the cost of replacing or building new pipes, valves, meters, hydrants, and all the hard parts that keep water flowing. Transfers are the exchange of money between the Water Utility and the General budget of the City. The “City” buys water from the Utility to run city hall, arenas, the pools, watering flowers, etc. At the same time, the Water Utility uses City equipment and personnel to do some of their work – from billing to road crews, and because the Utility by law must be separate from the General fund, these transfers must be accounted for. Every year, the Utility uses a little more City services than it collects from us in water charges. Finally, Reserves are the money the Utility puts aside in a reserve fund for a variety of purposes, which I will talk about below.
We foresee collecting just over $24 Million in sewer fees this year, compared to about $22.5 Million in 2020. That is about a 7% increase. We are also projecting to collect another $3.6 Million in DCC money and capital grants (I talk about how that works here). That will predominantly come from a 7% increase in sewer rates. Here is where we expect that money to go:
With the same categories as water above (instead of paying for water, we are charged by volume by Metro Vancouver for the treatment of our waste water), you can see it is a little different. We are budgeting for a much bigger capital expenditure in 2021 for sewers, and we are actually going to dip a bit into our reserves to pay for that – which is why I put the blue box with the arrow above the line there to show the offset of costs from dipping into reserves.
We foresee collecting $3.74M in users fees this year, compared to $3.35 Million last year (we also collect other revenue of a little under a million dollars in this utility) the utility rate increase works out to about 12%. Here’s where the money is projected to go:
You can see the solid waste utility works different that water and sewer. Though the per-tonne “tipping cost” of depositing waste at Metro Vancouver and private facilities is significant and going up, there is much more operational and transfer costs than other utilities. This is because of the nature of the work – we have collection trucks running 5 days a week that need crews and fuel. Also unique here is the fact we are running with a deficit in our reserves for solid waste, which will hopefully turn around by 2022, and this is not unrelated to why the rates are increasing so much.
I want to wrap this up by talking about our reserves. This is the money that each of these utilities have “in the bank” (well, Solid Waste has a deficit in the bank, but follow me here). We often talk about the main reason our utility rates are going up is because the cost of operating them is going up, but that is only partly true. We are also raising rates to build up our reserves.
The reason we have reserves is because they work like a buffer on the system. If we have an unexpected cost like extensive emergency repairs, a catastrophic loss, or have an opportunity to get a big matching fund grant from senior government that requires we are able to pay our half, a healthy reserve gives us that flexibility. Healthy reserves make our utilities *sustainable*. Currently, our reserves are in the order of 2-3% of the value of our assets. With increased awareness of the infrastructure gap so many communities are suffering, the current best practice is to keep reserves between 5% and 10% of the asset value. For this reason, we are continuing to build reserves in each of our Utility funds with an aim to get to that level.
This was a conversation we had in the workshop, and part of our finance staff’s work plan is to do a thorough analysis of our reserves situation as the City’s Asset Management plan is updated.
Overall, a typical household in New West can expect to see their annual utility rates for water, sewer, and solid waste go up by $132 next year, or about $11 more dollars a month.