Henry Wojak was one of several residents asking that council continue water delivery.
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The city could open itself up to millions of dollars in lawsuits if it keeps operating a rural water delivery system its lawyer says but some on council say that’s just fear mongering.
For more than 25 years the city has been delivering water to some rural residents in city limits. When wells run dry or development changes water tables, people can have 4,000 litres delivered to their home for around $55. Around 120 homes used the service last year. During droughts that number has been as high as 900.
But city administration says the fee only covers about one-third of the program’s cost. It wants to see the city get out of the water hauling business by next year. That would save the city thousands and would also get Thunder Bay and its councillors out of any liability it could face through the province’s Safe Drinking Water Act. City solicitor Nadia Koltun told council that possible contamination issues and even damage to property when delivering the water would hold the city corporation and the entire council personally responsible. Any issue would result in millions of dollars a day in legal battles and even force individual councillors to get their own lawyers.
The legislation is the result of contaminated water in Walkerton that killed several people.
“This is not a common exposure for municipal councillors,” Koltun said of the legislation holding councillors personally liable. “It signals the seriousness with which the province of Ontario considers the issue of potable water at the municipal level.”
Coun. Trevor Giertuga, who represents the McIntyre ward, said the city faces legal action on a number of issues at any given time. In 25 years there has never been an issue with a system that is essential for some tax payers in the city. He also blamed development for forcing people who once had functioning wells to have to turn to the city to get their water.
“All these people that are out here at one point had water,” he said referring to a full gallery of spectators. “We’ve allowed development to continue in these areas where we know there are problems.”
The report suggested that people could find a private delivery service, dig other wells or use city-provided tap houses to fill up their own tanks. But several deputants, including Katherine Sertic said that's just not affordable. A mother of five, Sertic said her family has a water delivery every 10 days and that's with extreme conservation methods. Quotes from private companies have estimated that a similar amount be around $600 every month.
"I can't afford that, it would cripple my family," she said.
As for wells Anthony Tarsitano, who brought a petition with more than 250 signatures asking that the city continue the service, said some people he has spoken with have tried half a dozen times to dig a well for potable water. For some people it just isn't possible.
"Please do not cut off this lifeline to us," he said. "It is essential."
Other speakers pointed to the fact that rural residents pay taxes for things they don't use and it's not considered a subsidy. Henry Wojak said rural residents even pay for some sewer work.
"I hope you wrap your head around that," he said.
But Coun. Andrew Foulds said that water is rate supported, not tax supported. He wanted to know why if city residents were being asked to pay more for water every year, rural delivery rates hadn't risen too. Infrastructure manager Darrell Matson said council has been treating rural delivery as an exception when it comes to the rate. Tarsitano said they weren't opposed to paying more for the service.
"We honestly thought this was our fair share,” he said.
Council was expected to make a decision on the matter Monday but due to some uncertainty voted to postpone the vote until more information comes back in the spring of 2014.
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