French Creek residents want regional district to buy their water system from private owner

The process gets rolling today with a survey at www.frenchcreekresidents.ca

In a movement fuelled by recent rate increases, the French Creek Residents Association is trying to convince the Regional District of Nanaimo to purchase the area’s water system from a company owned by the City of Edmonton.

It starts with an online survey that’s being rolled out today, asking the residents of about 2,000 homes (excluding Sandpiper, which is already on an RDN-owned system) this question:

“Would you be in favour of the Regional District of Nanaimo purchasing Epcor French Creek water service if the total debt repayment (including expenses) and the cost of water did not exceed what you are currently paying to Epcor for your water service?”

Residents can participate in the survey by following the links at frenchcreekresidents.ca. Representatives of the residents’ association (FCRA) say the survey will also ask for the respondents’ name and address and only those living in the appropriate water service area will have their votes counted.

“Water should be in the public domain,” FCRA vice-president Rob Williams said last week. “For protection, for regulators, for the equity and for some elected accountability.”

Local governments like the RDN can expropriate private water systems. The French Creek area’s representative on the RDN board said he isn’t willing to support that route yet.

“I’m certainly willing to go that far but I need to see some numbers,” said Joe Stanhope. “I can’t say yea or nay until I have a staff report to see the implications.”

“It’s going to be costly, one way or another.”

The FCRA has its own cost model. Williams and fellow FCRA vice-president Bill Campbell have math that suggests ratepayers would actually save money on their monthly water bills if the RDN purchased the system, including the cost of borrowing and a $100,000 expenditure by the RDN to evaluate the asset.

The FCRA suggests ratepayers would save $8.24/month if the RDN purchased the system from Epcor for $3.5 million (including the $100,000 evaluation) and save $4.84/month if the system was purchased for $5.1 million. The FCRA said monthly costs would be the same as they are now for residents if the purchase price was as high as $7.2 million.

Williams and Campbell said the FCRA based its purchase price numbers on recent events in White Rock, where the municipality bought the water system from Epcor for about $18 million. The White Rock system is about five times larger than the one in French Creek, said the FCRA reps. White Rock took over the water system four months after passing a city council motion.

Epcor was asked this week about the FCRA efforts.

“We haven’t seen the survey and wouldn’t want to speculate,” Epcor’s Stephanie Begin told The NEWS on Tuesday via e-mail. “That said, we respect the community’s right to explore the feasibility of a potential purchase of the water utility.”

Epcor got approval to increase rates by 33 per cent effective Jan. 1. The company had asked for a 46 per cent rate increase.

“There has been a lot of unrest with what rates Epcor wanted,” said Williams. “(The rate increase) was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Also, it’s the comparison with (the rates of) adjoining communities,” said Campbell.

The FCRA reps said they met with Epcor officials in November of 2015.

“We asked them the question point blank — would they sell,” said Williams. “They said they aren’t looking to sell but they are always open to an offer.”

The FCRA reps are hoping for a large response to their survey.

“We need to show them (the RDN and Epcor) there’s a representative number of residents, a significant number, that would be in favour of the RDN pursuing a purchase,” said Williams.

Stanhope, the long-time RDN rep and a resident of the same French Creek property for more than 70 years, said he understands the frustrations of his neighbours.

“I know there’s a lot of disatisfaction about the rate increase,” said Stanhope. “I’m on Epcor (water), I get their feeling.”

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