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A councillor was stopped in the hall and asked about the possibility of luring a minor-league baseball team to Ottawa.
Not what the politician wanted to talk about.
“The people who want baseball had better pay for it themselves. Government can’t subsidize baseball and fix sewers, too.”
The councillor railed on.
“There are no votes underground. For years politicians bought votes by selling the fancy stuff, while our sewers continued to erode. I mean, what is government for if it can’t even maintain a decent sewer system?”
Who was this outspoken champion of our subterranean conduits? Maria McRae, chair of the environment committee, arguing why our annual bills for water and sewer services should top $1,000 by the end of the decade? Peter Hume, who helped realize the Ottawa River Action Plan?
No. It was Darrel Kent. The year was 1989. (The journalist was Dan Turner, and he clearly wasn’t referring to the report due out this week about whether Ottawa’s getting a new baseball team.)
Those of a certain age will remember the eloquent Kent, who was an Ottawa alderman during the 1980s. He ran against Marion Dewar for mayor, and Peter Clark for regional chair, and even against Dalton McGuinty in 1990. Kent’s love of politics was surpassed only by his apparent pragmatism and sense of fiduciary responsibility, at least when it came to sewers.
His most important contribution in this field was reforming the funding model for the water and sewer system. It used to be that residents were billed directly for water only. Money for upkeep to the sewer system came out of the general tax budget. That created the potential for governments to shortchange the sewer budget in order to funnel funds to other projects.
Kent, and then-regional chair Andy Haydon, worked to bring in the system we have today, where water and sewer systems are paid exclusively though rates charged directly to residents. Money collected through those rates can’t be shunted somewhere else. It also means when the system needs fixing, the funds have to come from money paid through our water and sewer bill.
And in the mid-’80s, Kent helped put together a 20-year priority list for sewer projects.
The Glebe’s Bank Street reconstruction that was mostly finished last fall? It was on that list. Even doing something about the combined storm-and-sanitation sewers that resulted — and still do — in raw sewage overflowing into the Ottawa River was on it, somewhere down the line. It seemed a well thought-out plan.
But before we invest Kent with too much prescience, there’s a good reason he was obsessed with the sewer system 23 years ago. As he told the Citizen, over-taxed sewers were “flooding excrement into people’s basements across this city.” He had 170 families complaining about it in his own ward. That kind of public attention is enough to turn anyone into a sewer junkie.
What happened to that 20-year plan? Hard to tell what was added to or deleted from the list, what was delayed, who voted for — or against — what. What we do know is that today, we find ourselves behind in our system’s upkeep.
Kent is right, of course — we don’t vote for what we can’t see.
So when the flooding problems of the 1980s were somewhat mitigated, politicians stopped paying immediate attention to the underlying problems. From 1994 to 2000, water and sewer rates in pre-amalgamation Ottawa remained flat and were twice rolled back by three percentage points. Voters weren’t clamouring to pay more.
But we’re willing to pay more now. Councillors are reporting just a trickle of complaints over the prospect of rates rising a combined 74 per cent over the next 10 years. If you suffered a flooded basement in Kanata, or lived through the outdoor water ban in Barrhaven, would you quibble over upgrades? What if you’re an Elgin Street restaurateur who lost business last month, or the parents of teenagers sent home from Merivale High School last week because of burst water mains? Are you going to argue against investing more money in the system?
Of course not. It’s why politicians and city staff couldn’t have picked a more expedient time to lay this 10-year financial plan on us.
And we may like to think that it’s our heightened attention to the environment that spurred the Ottawa River Action Plan. But the fact is, we’ve known for decades that raw sewage flows into the river. No, we only demanded action when we realized that the sewage spills were closing down the newish east-end beach all the time.
Suddenly, what’s going on underground in this city is very real and seems almost as important as, say, a new baseball team.
Read full story here.