Resident urges audit of West Bench water bills

Sep 2, 2014 at 4:00 PM— updated Sep 3, 2014 at 9:59 AM

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.



I am not going to say much about this given that all decision regarding exemptions for the West Bench Irrigation District (WBID) were made by the board of the WBID.  The board of the WBID was a democratically-constituted decision-making body.  It had an obligation under the Local Government Act (see here) to:

  1. Constitute a court of revision
  2. Notify all ratepayers of the the date and time of the court of revision
  3. Consider submissions by ratepayers for adjustments to water assessments


As far as we can tell, all this was done by the WBID.  So yes, different property owners paid different amounts because no two properties are the same.  The WBID court of revision made the adjustments it deemed necessary at the time.  Not everyone was happy with these decisions.  To now call them "special discounts" is disingenuous.

My own view is that courts of revision and special exemptions based on land usage are bound to be problematic.  Accordingly, we are moving towards a meter-based system for billing for the new RDOS-administered West Bench water system.   Once the meters are fully operational, residents will pay for what they use. Unlike the WBID (which did not have the benefit of universal water meters) we have no court of revision. 

As I see it, what Dr. Johnson is asking for is a kind of appeals court to revisit decisions of the WBID from years ago.  I have no interest in this.

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