Halifax storm water tax collection had ‘unintended consequences’

Council charged some residents multiple times for storm water runoff

Storm water runoff is rain that flows over ground surfaces, like pavement, into drains, pipes and ditches.
Storm water runoff is rain that flows over ground surfaces, like pavement, into drains, pipes and ditches.   Haleigh Atwood

On Tuesday, Halifax regional council admitted it made a mistake regarding the collection of storm water service charges, but who these taxes are collected from remains unchanged.

Council, which debated for two hours about the fees, said some residents paid multiple times for the services. Others in rural areas also paid for the service, but don’t benefit from it.

“There were unexpected consequences and that’s on us,” Coun. Waye Mason said during the discussion.

Coun. Bill Karsten agreed and said it was “a mistake.”

Halifax Water charges the Halifax Regional Municipality $3.9 million, annually, for storm water. Since 2013, the HRM has gone back and forth over how to pay the fee.

Currently, the HRM charges $42 per year in storm water services to every taxable property in the municipality. In 2013, council charged residents $39 for storm water on their water bill. However, Halifax Water already had a separate storm water fee on the bill, so council received complaints from people who thought they were being charged twice.

“There’s a whole pile of different options and there isn’t necessarily one that’s right,” said Bruce Fisher, manager of financial policy and planning.

To fix this issue, council removed the fee from this year’s water bill and moved it to the property tax bill. All assessable properties were charged for storm water, even those in rural areas that don’t receive the service.

Additionally, because the fee was put on the property bill, if one person owned multiple properties they were charged $42 per property. This resulted in hundreds of residents in condo buildings paying not only for their condo, but also parking spaces and storage areas.

What is being done?

At the meeting, HRM staff recommended that council institute a general tax rate for storm water. Many councillors saw this as problematic, as properties that don’t benefit would still be taxed.

Council asked staff to find a fair way for storm water fees to be charged through an area tax rate. This would mean only properties within Halifax Water boundaries would be charged – most of which receive storm water services.

They also asked staff to explore ways the HRM could refund residents who paid the storm water charge for multiple properties, but John Traves, director of legal services, said the municipality can’t reimburse people who paid multiple fees.

“There is no flexibility in the charter for us to write a cheque or give a cash return of money to individuals,” said Traves.

However, he said it may be possible to reduce residential taxes for those who were charged more than once.

Council will continue to debate options for storm water taxes at their Nov. 22 meeting.

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