The Consultant as a Utility: Understanding Value through the Stormwater Fee Scenario

The Consultant as a Utility: Understanding Value through the Stormwater Fee Scenario
Written By: Christina Cholkan, P.Eng.

Scanning my newsfeed in early June, I’d discovered that a few weeks prior the Toronto Executive Committee had voted to stop moving forward with its proposed stormwater fee . Without knowing too much detail at that time, I was surprised at the decision and also that the news hadn’t made its way to any of my social media streams earlier. Nearby municipalities such as Mississauga and Kitchener had recently implemented stormwater fees, so why not Toronto?

But before continuing, let’s review a high-level introduction to stormwater fees, also referred to as charges or utilities:

A stormwater utility is a funding mechanism by a municipality to support its stormwater infrastructure (capital and operational) costs. Ideally, a utility of any kind will want to be able to fully support its program using only revenue collected by user rates to be sustainable for the long term. This form of cost recovery is actually mandated for water systems in Ontario . In this case, what is specifically proposed in Toronto is that users (i.e. properties) pay a fee related to the amount of stormwater that they discharge, rather than a hidden rate based on potable water use that’s currently lumped into the general water bill. The stormwater fee rate is typically based on land use classification and percentage of land covered with a hard surface (i.e. imperviousness – ask your Water Resource Engineer). Often the key benefits of a stormwater fee system are noted as:
  • transparency for the rate payer (i.e. they will know how much they contribute to the stormwater program, based on their individual property)
  • potential net decrease in overall water bill, depending on property type
  • a dedicated funding stream for a city’s stormwater management program (perhaps less ongoing budgetary uncertainty or for getting a better sense of a utility’s financial sustainability)
Anyway, the ultimate “no” vote had surprised me and I decided to look into it further. Consultations indicated perceived inequalities by residential property owners and justified confusion in terms of administering the program. Media coverage seemed to imply that there may have been a communication challenge, stemming from a misunderstanding of how stormwater is generated and quantified . However, at a Blue Drinks[4] event, this report was questioned and the point was made that it's not always possible to get the full story from media reports about how councilors reach their decisions. It was also expressed that industrial sector lobby groups played an influential role in the decision, highlighting Toronto’s regard for businesses contributing to the local economy. It was expressed that the stormwater fee would likely not be on the table at all again for the remainder of the term (early 2019).

What I’ve learned from this experience, and what was quietly expressed at the Blue Drinks event, was that it’s not constructive to dwell on past decisions. Sure, after hearing the results of the vote and reading about it in the media I felt initial disappointment. I’d learned of the significant efforts that some city staff put into developing the supporting report over the last year. But after delving into the situation more and considering the input of many stakeholders, I realized that its naïve to think that a stormwater utility is the blanket solution for every municipality. As consultants, we should be expected to look at all possible solutions, do our research, and propose the highest value options to our clients. In this case, maybe the stormwater utility just wasn’t right or not right “right now”. Key takeaways:
  1. Consulting includes listening as first step - not just telling – to provide maximum utility (i.e. value) to the client, especially in the public arena.
  2. Industry trends aren’t to be blindly followed. What works for one jurisdiction may not be best for another.
  3. If it’s strongly believed that a given approach such as a stormwater fee is ultimately the best way to go, we should act on removing current barriers, whether technological (e.g. improving GIS algorithms) or political (e.g. improving partnerships with the industrial sector to add value to their operations). An understanding of timing is important- when is the issue up for renegotiation and what obstacles can be realistically alleviated in this timeframe?
So what’s important now is to move forward - Toronto hasn’t de-funded stormwater! There’s still work to do and outcomes to achieve and it should be up to us to continue delivering our clients and their stakeholders the best possible value.