Light at the end of Colwood’s sewer tunnel

Flushing the toilet in Colwood just got a whole lot cheaper.

  • Oct. 18, 2011 4:00 p.m.

Flushing the toilet in Colwood just got a whole lot cheaper.

Colwood’s complicated, legally dubious and wildly mismanaged sewer taxation system could finally be smoothed out with a new set of bylaws passed Monday night.

Five years in the making, the bylaws will simplify how Colwood homeowners are taxed for their sanitary sewer connection, and for the vast majority, will reduce their sewer tax bill.

“This solves the issues of erratic, volatile taxes and the issues of complexity that lead to errors and lack of comprehension on how the system works,” said Michael Baxter, Colwood’s chief engineer and chief architect behind the new regulations. “It also reduces the costs to almost everyone involved, 97 per cent of owners will see a reduction in taxes.”

The meat of the bylaws involves merging 56 local service areas (LSAs) to five LSAs, which simplifies administration and tax calculations for each property on the sewer system.

Each sewer “phase” – or trunk line – has a collection of LSAs which pay down debt on the phase. Some homes are within five different LSAs, which can lead to complicated and often incorrect sewer tax bills. Under the new system, homes will be in one or two LSAs.

Sewer taxes will also now be based on a parcel tax instead of assessed value of the property, meaning properties pay sewer tax based on development potential of the land, which is set by the zoning.

For large empty lots with capacity for hundreds or thousands of homes – such as the Royal Bay lands – sewer taxes will go up. For most single family homes, taxes should go down.

Baxter said the outgoing system led to bizarre scenarios where one household paid $2,000 in sewer taxes and their neighbour paid $20,000. In one case a townhouse was paying $2,000 per year. In some areas of Colwood properties paid nothing at all.

Under the new regulations, similar sized properties in the same area will pay the same share of sewer taxes – in the hundreds of dollars as opposed to thousands. And as more homes hook to sewers, the more the overall debt is divided.

The bylaws impact about 1,800 homes, townhomes and condos in Colwood, and about 4,000 homes remain on septic. People looking to hook onto sewers will pay a flat $3,100 fee plus the cost to physically connect to a sewer trunk line.

The fee will go into a fund to pay to increase the capacity of the system – increasing the size of the pipes – to help guarantee that capacity exists for the group of developers who originally petitioned the city to build the system.

A few of those developers sued the City repeatedly over the years as Colwood tried and failed to fix sewer inequalities. In the past few years the City created a sewer advisory group of citizens, brought in provincial government help and negotiated with developers to end legal disputes.

“It doesn’t seem real to get to this point,” said Mayor Dave Saunders Monday night. “It’s not a done deal and the province has to sign off, but this is an exciting moment. My congratulations to staff and council.”

Over the years, the City has spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees, while staff spent untold hours wrestling with getting sewer taxes under control. Former chief administrator Chris Pease, who brought Colwood’s record keeping out of the dark ages, regretted not solving the sewer problem before retiring last year.

“It took three years to figure out the scope of the problem, the records were so bad,” Baxter said. “People in finance (at City Hall) did a great job unearthing what happened until we fully understood the financial situation.

“It’s been years and years of detective work, negotiations and head scratching.”

Colwood isn’t completely out of the woods yet.

Minister of Community Development Ida Chong needs to sign off on the bylaws. Baxter said the regulations will solve “80 to 90 per cent of sewer issues” – some homeowners have outstanding claims against Colwood for paying excess tax. And there’s no guarantee legal challenges won’t emerge from developers in the future.

In a hiccup, council also needs to rescind one of the bylaws passed Monday and pass an updated version at a special council meeting on Wednesday. Colwood council hopes to finalize the bylaws at the Oct. 24 meeting.

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