Hamilton staff have been warned never to raise the idea again, but a neighbouring city council has quickly endorsed a pavement tax to fund stormwater infrastructure in hopes of avoiding more damage to homes and businesses. Imposing a fee on properties whose rainfall is immediately directed into city sewers is a no–brainer for Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, in a summer when extreme flooding has dominated North American news with her city among the hardest hit.
“It’s in the tax bill, whether you like it or not,” she declared this week as Mississauga council endorsed over $50 million in stormwater projects. “You either charge those that are producing more of the stormwater [runoff], or you charge everybody.”
The record–breaking July 8 rainstorms that inundated downtown Toronto and trapped 1400 GO Train passengers in the floodwaters of the Don River, also hit Mississauga with at least equal ferocity, dumping up to five inches on parts of the city in a few hours. Estimates from the Insurance Bureau of Canada indicate that it resulted in over $850 million in insured damages alone, making the storm by far the most costly in Ontario’s history.
Speaking in support of the pavement tax, one Mississauga councillor noted that the Square One shopping centre parking lot had added over 10,000 cubic metres of runoff during the July 8 storm, about double what came off a residential area of the same size. Another pointed out that runoff can be significantly reduced by the use of underground cisterns, as it was at Pearson airport where the highest precipitation occurred.
Ontario’s second most costly storm – at $671 million – took place in August 2005. In Hamilton it flooded 1700 homes and convinced the city to establish an independent expert panel called the Storm Event Response Group.
Imposing a new stormwater fee based on the amount of impervious surface was one of its recommendations in both its initial and final reports. The latter was filed in April 2009, a few months before Ontario’s third most costly storm hit Hamilton and other parts of the province in late July, inundating the Red Hill Parkway and over 7000 city homes.
By that point, city council had already unanimously instructed city staff to investigate “the feasibility of introducing a stormwater utility rate, effective January 2010” to help cover the rapidly growing spending on both flood relief and upgrading of the storm sewer system. The formal staff endorsement came in November 2009 after a second “100–year–storm” had flooded the Parkway and more homes in August.
But their recommendation to “proceed with implementing a stormwater rate” by January 2011 ran into opposition from several councillors and a lawyer representing McMaster University. Lloyd Ferguson expressed concern that the fee would harm existing businesses and convince new ones not to come to Hamilton.
“They pay big taxes anyway, and don’t demand a lot of services, and we’re downloading more of the tax burden on that commercial/industrial employer out there, and that’s worrisome,” he said.
Rob Pasuta and since–defeated councillor Dave Mitchell argued that the rural areas should be excluded, and Brad Clark dubbed the fee “a rain tax”. Council decided to delay a decision and subsequently rejected the stormwater fee and ordered staff to find other options. When a 2012 report mentioned other municipalities who have adopted a fee, Brad Clark hit the roof and extracted a promise from city manager Chris Murray that the idea would not appear again.
A new plan to cover the escalating costs of stormwater management has not been submitted yet. Most costs are currently borne by steadily rising water rates.V