One for all . . . or water and sewage user groups pay for their own systems? That was the subject of a prolonged debate at a recent special meeting of Champlain Township council on January 24. In the end, councillors voted to have users as one group share the cost of all upgrades. In a recorded vote, all councillors voted in favour of the move with the exception of West Hawkesbury ward councillor Pierre Perreault.

Here is what some of what councillors discussed before making their decision, which was being considered last week as $2.95 million for Vankleek Hill wastewater treatment system (including the lagoon system) is about to be financed. The Ontario Small Community Fund is providing $5.9 million, or two-thirds of the eligible costs for this upgrade.

The debate centred around whether all water and sewer users should, for example, share the costs when the Vankleek Hill sewage lagoons are updated – or when L’Orignal needs upgrades for its storm sewers.

Since 2011, the L’Orignal and Vankleek Hill water and sewage users all pay the same monthly rates as users. The residents of these two wards use water supplied by municipal systems; water is purchased from the Town of Hawkesbury. There are a few additional users along Highway 34, like St. Jude Catholic School and a few private residences.

And in the meantime, a small group of households in Laurentian Park are part of a small system and they pay the same rate as users in Vankleek Hill and L’Orignal.

While L’Orignal councillor Marc Séguin asked why the merging of the systems had not occurred at the time of amalgamation, Champlain Township Mayor Gary Barton said that the systems are intricate and that there were outstanding debts that had to be taken into consideration. He said he, too, had questions; he wondered why the mechanical wastewater treatment plant had been selected as an option.

“You take the L’Orignal wastewater treatment plant. It is hard to see into the future, but that is a mechanical plant and is costing a lot more to operate than the lagoon system,” said Barton, referring to Vankleek Hill’s sewage lagoon system.

“It is more than double the cost and everyone who uses municipal water in Champlain Township is paying for that,” Barton said.

“Our (water and sewer) costs are still one of the lowest around,” said Barton.

If council decided to merge the capital project costs, when funds are borrowed for upgrades or repairs, the annual repayment costs would be calculated and apportioned into the water and sewer rates for all users, explained Champlain Township CAO Paula Knudsen.

“In my mind I remember that we were blending all the operations together, but there was no conversation on the capital,” said West Hawkesbury ward councillor Gerry Miner.

The small number of users in Laurentian Park (about 40 users) could not support their own water and sewage system, council was reminded. In all, the township has about 4,300 users on municipal systems.

“There are other areas where we have a deficit that gets paid by everybody . . . but sometimes those things don’t benefit everybody,” said Miner.

Merging future capital expenditures so that costs are shared by all users is a practice that is quite common, Knudsen pointed out.

“We won’t be the first and we are not the last to do this for sustainability reasons. The larger the pool, the better the capacity to do improvements,” Knudsen said.

But going back in time to merge past debts is another matter. In the past, capital improvements were often presented to ratepayers with the options of paying a one-time, up-front fee, or to amortize the cost for “local improvements” over a period of time, formerly, as long as 40 years. (Today, the limit is 30 years for loan repayment for municipal capital projects.)

“You can’t throw it in a pile,” said Knudsen.

“To be fair, it would be almost impossible to do it. It would take a lot of analysis and research,” said Knudsen, who said that the township could not add debt, for example, to a householder who had already paid the up-front cost 10, or 20 years ago.

“I would tell you that if we are looking at operating costs, I would make the argument that Vankleek Hill picks up all their debt. It’s more beneficial for Vankleek Hill to go back to the way we were doing it in 2010,” said Barton. “I’m not sure how you would make it all balance out. Like I said, the lagoon system is cheaper than the mechanical wastewater treatment system in L’Orignal and that will need replacing eventually.”

“The Vankleek Hill wastewater system needs upgrading now, but given the infiltration problems in L’Orignal — and I don’t know how or when that will need to be addressed — there will have to be major work there and eventually, the entire wastewater treatment plant will need to be replaced,” Knudsen pointed out. “We need a fair policy,” she added.

Perreault likened the process to buying a new car for L’Orignal, while Vankleek Hill is still paying for its 30-year-old car.

Vankleek Hill ward councillor Troy Carkner said that maybe council was missing the big picture.

“This year, it’s the Vankleek Hill plant, but L’Orignal is going to need a plant and Laurentian Park will eventually need something. I don’t see where splitting off is going to help anyone,” said Carkner.

Knudsen pointed out that the township currently has a contract with the Ontario Clean Water Agency to manage all three systems. To divide that up, have three contracts, divide chemicals, etc. would be quite a bit of work,” she said.

Barton reminded council that this was a “big, big decision. The problem is that we don’t know what is going to happen 10 years down the road. It’s either one for all and all for one — or do we want to split it,” Barton asked.

“I know if I was a councillor for Vankleek Hill I would be pushing to go back to 2010,” Barton reiterated.

“If we go separate ways, that will kill Laurentian Park (users),” Riopel pointed out. “I think it is more important to stay within Champlain.”

Vankleek Hill councillor Paul Emile Duval said that he agreed with cost-sharing among the water and sewage system users.

Longueuil councillor Helen MacLeod also agreed. “We are borrowing money for Vankleek Hill but in three or four years, it will be L’Orignal that needs something.”

MacLeod raised the subject of reserves. “Should we not be putting money in reserves to help with all of this?” said MacLeod, saying that it feels as if the township is doing “catch-up”.

Barton said that should be the plan. But the township has been facing big capital expenditures recently, including more than $300,000 for a new snowplow and more than $300,000 for a new tanker truck for the L’Orignal fire department, he replied.

“But for some of these items, we have been putting money in a reserve. Why aren’t we putting money in a reserve for water and sewage,” MacLeod asked.

Barton pointed to another recent skyrocketing cost. “Our policing costs went from $850,000 per year to $1.5 million per year. And we had no choice in that. All that kills us. We are in a $10-million deficit with our roads and on average, we spend $600,000 per year,” Barton said.

L’Orignal councillor Jacques Lacelle said that if L’Orignal residents were sharing the cost of upgrades to the Vankleek Hill wastewater treatment system, “There should be someone (from L’Orignal) on that committee.” Lacelle was referring to the construction committee for the upgrades.

Barton said Lacelle was welcome to attend the committee meetings.

Champlain Township’s public works superintendent asked to make a comment and mentioned that he has seen the sanitary sewer situation in L’Orignal and that, “There is a lot of money to spend there.”

“I think we should stick to the status quo and keep it all in one pot,” said Carkner.

In the end, the resolution to consolidate the cost recovery for future capital upgrades within the user rate and share the cost among all users, in one integrated system, was approved with only Pierre Perreault voting against the resolution in the recorded vote.

“This is a tough situation. If you looked at all the stuff involved  . . . it’s unfortunate when ratepayers are stuck with extra costs, but that’s the world we live in,” said Barton.

“I think this is proof of the importance of communication. I did not come here with the intention of voting for it, but I did vote for it after the discussion,” said Miner.