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Resident urges audit of West Bench water bills

Ronald Johnson is calling for an audit of water billing practices on the West Bench. - Joe Fries/Western News
Ronald Johnson is calling for an audit of water billing practices on the West Bench.
— image credit: Joe Fries/Western News

A property owner on the West Bench is calling for an audit of the community’s water billing practices to determine how many ratepayers are receiving special discounts.

Ronald Johnson said he discovered three years ago that some West Bench residents have  exemptions to avoid paying the per-acre water charge on non-irrigable parts of their properties, like gullies.

In one case, he discovered a landowner was being billed for just two of 28 acres, and based on his inquiries believes up to 10 such exemptions have been granted since 1996.

“There are still other people on the West Bench that are paying on their full acreage, and they deserve to know other people have exemptions,” said Johnson, a semi-retired dentist.

He claims the existence of such exemptions, granted by the now-defunct West Bench Irrigation District’s court of revision, was not well known and only came to his attention in 2011 following conversations with neighbours when the per-acre portion of his annual bill increased by $697 to $1,200.

He then applied for his own exemption that year, arguing a quarter of his 12 acres on Sparton Drive is in a gully and therefore non-irrigable, but was denied.

Just months later, the WBID was dissolved and the system turned over to the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, which has overseen a $9.8-million upgrade that includes water meters at each of the approximately 1,100 connections in the community.

Johnson later took the RDOS to small claims court over the water rate increase, which was ruled legal.

The judge suggested, however, that the two parties agree on an informal way to measure Johnson’s land for an exemption, although they couldn’t settle on a price.

Now he’s taken his concerns public, including protesting two RDOS board meetings where he called for the audit, which seems unlikely to happen.

“We don’t have the WBID records of that detail as to how many (exemptions) were approved. They’re just not there,” said RDOS chief administrative officer Bill Newell.

Theresa Nolet, the final person to chair the WBID board, is also unsure how many exemptions were granted, but insists the process was conducted according to law.

“It wasn’t a secret. Everything was recorded in our minutes. Our meetings were public. There was no secrecy,” she said.

Michael Brydon, the RDOS director for the West Bench, said his organization has no appetite to delve into the past now.

“As I see it, the RDOS has absolutely no authority or obligation to revisit past decisions given that we are moving to a different allocation scheme and have nothing like a court of revision in place,” he said via email.

That new allocation scheme will be based on metered usage, but probably not until 2016 after customers receive a full year’s worth of mock water bills upon which rates will be set. Johnson, who is “99 per cent sure” he will take a run at Brydon’s job in November’s municipal election, said that if elected he would immediately undertake the audit and switch to metered billing.

 

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