After issuing over $5 million in grants last year, the city is tightening up its subsidy program for installation of backflow valves in private homes to curb abuse by contractors. Climate change costs also include millions in compassionate grants to flood victims, including over 200 payments after last summer’s 1000–year storm that clobbered the Binbrook and upper Stoney Creek area.
Grants issued in response to that storm were the second highest amount since 2006 and the fifth highest of nineteen extreme rain storms since 2005. Many of the same homes experienced flooding again last month from a combination of heavy rain and rapid melting, but so far council has not declared that event eligible for the grants of up to $1000 per home.
The July 26 2009 storm that flooded the Red Hill Parkway remains the largest in terms of claims filed and compassionate grants provided. It was in the wake of that deluge that council established the “protective plumbing program” to encourage homeowners to install backwater valves to keep sewage out of their basements – a subsidy staff describe as “possibly the largest and furthest reaching program that addresses adaptation to climate change in Hamilton.”
Initially only flooding victims could apply for the installation subsidy of up to $2000 per home, but in the face of requests from residents hoping to avoid future problems, the program was extended in 2011 to all houses except those occupied by renters. That has resulted in a huge increase in applications pushing total grants to $11.2 million for installation in about 5% of eligible houses (over $12 million including administration costs) and forced council to top up the budget twice last year.
That’s partly because contractors have been enticing homeowners with gift cards to convince them to apply for the grant and then bill for the maximum grant for as little as three hours work.
“By virtue of the fact that there’s probably more profit for the contractors, their marketing has just stepped up incredibly,” water/wastewater director Dan Chauvin told councillors in October, “and we’re seeing all kinds of different marketing schemes where they’re offering free gas cards and this and that and the other thing.”
In response, staff recommend requiring all applicants to obtain “three independent quotes”, and collecting written promises from both owner and contractor that “any grants or loans from the city are provided on the condition that the property owners not receive remuneration, in any form, from the contractor.” That would allow the city to revoke a contractor’s licence using “honesty and integrity” rules if there was evidence that incentives were used to grease the process.
Options of the city taking over the valve installations or hiring a single contractor to do so were not recommended because of “significant” risk of liability.
“Undertaking this model would likely expose the city to a number of potential claims,” staff believe, “such as recurring basement flooding and associated property damage, collateral structural or cosmetic damage, customer service claims and health and safety claims.”
Their report also renews a promise made in 2009 and 2011 of future recommendations on how to extend the grant program to rental properties. Hamilton’s tenants pay a much higher property tax rate than homeowners – equal to about 20 percent of their rent – but are frequently ineligible for city programs and services.
The backwater valves do nothing to prevent overland flooding – increasingly common as storms intensify – but staff argue they reduce liability claims, response costs, and compassionate grant payments, and serve to “provide access for property owners for cheaper [insurance] premiums, higher limits, and/or lower deductibles for sewer back–up coverage.” V