The city may explore whether letting Winnipeggers switch to monthly water and sewer bills could help them cope with large spikes in cost.
Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) is calling for the public service to create options that let residents choose monthly utility bills, instead of quarterly payments. A monthly equal payment plan, which would base the rate on a client’s usage history, would also be studied — if the motion is approved.
Klein said he expects that would be especially helpful for those coping with pandemic losses, as well as those with a fixed or low income.
"Having that opportunity to either put (the charges) on a balanced payment plan similar to what Manitoba Hydro offers, or to be able to pay monthly seems like a more manageable payment system for residents that are experiencing some financially difficult times," he said.
The councillor said he received several requests for the change, which increased after some families noticed a massive spike in their bills during pandemic lockdowns.
"In one person’s situation, their bill had almost doubled when they were all home for the last three or four months… and they weren’t prepared for that," he said.
He noted the city allows property and business taxes to be paid monthly.
Mark Wire, who has a fixed income, said he believes monthly bills would go a long way to helping seniors plan their monthly budgets.
"I think it’s the right thing and long overdue. Water bills become quite sizable after three months," said Wire.
He noted his own average bill of around $300 soared to more than $800 in the summer.
"That’s a lot of money for people to come up with… out of the blue," said Wire.
Molly McCracken, a member of Make Poverty History Manitoba, said she expects the change could help some Winnipeggers with low incomes.
"I expect it would be helpful because most budgeting is done on a monthly basis… The equal payment plan also would create predictability for people," said McCracken.
However, she believes the payment change is just one small step forward. McCracken urged the city to consider forgiving some fees for low-income Winnipeggers.
"It doesn’t get at the root causes of the financial hardship due to COVID, fixed incomes and rising water bills," said McCracken.
Coun. Brian Mayes, chairman of council’s water and waste committee, said he doesn’t oppose studying the idea. However, he believes implementing it could prove expensive, since most Winnipeggers rely on mailed-out paper utility bills.
"It does seem more costly to be able to send out a monthly bill to hundreds of thousands of users, so I have concerns about that. Once we (become) more paperless, it should be more feasible," said Mayes (St. Vital).
He said the city must also consider how payment changes would affect the transfer of water and sewer bills between owners each time a home is sold.
In an email, city spokesman Adam Campbell said those who can’t afford to pay their utility bills can contact the city for help. Some low-income households may qualify for support from a City of Winnipeg/Salvation Army program called H2O Help to Others, he noted.
If Klein’s motion is approved by the water and waste committee, a report on the matter would be expected in about 90 days.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.