Should the municipality lend people money to upgrade the well or septic system at their cottage?
That’s the question Halifax regional council spent an hour debating on Tuesday.
Since 2018, as a response to a dry summer and empty wells, Halifax has had a financing program for homeowners who want to upgrade their wells but don’t have the money to pay up front and don’t have access to credit. Two people have used the program since then.
According to a report to council on Tuesday by Renée Towns, the city’s manager of revenue and treasurer, that’s because people who inquire about the program either want a grant, not a loan, or they can get better interest rates from their usual lender.
“The Municipality is not structured to provide financing services as efficiently as the private sector,” Towns wrote. “As a result, many customers who have inquired about HRM’s program have determined they can obtain financing at a competitive rate built into their mortgage payments from their financial institution.”
Towns’ report to council recommended in favour of extending the current program to “on-site sewage disposal systems” like septic systems and “other types of water systems” like cisterns. But Towns recommended the program should not be extended to secondary residences.
“The intent of the program is to act as a lender of last resort for customers who may face financial barriers to accessing financing through a traditional financial institution,” Towns wrote.
“Customers who have recreational or seasonal properties and have another residence at their disposal are not facing the same urgency as customers who do not have sufficient water and sewage disposal in their principal residence.”
Towns also argued the program could become overburdened if it was extended to secondary properties, to a point where existing staff couldn’t keep up.
Coun. David Hendsbee argued seasonal and recreational properties should be included, and that they wouldn’t put more stress on the program.
“We’ve seen recently with the COVID situation and the requirement for people to isolate, that a lot of the summer homes and stuff that people had, they want to get away to, they try to use them as much as possible, but from time to time, inadequate water supply and inadequate septic systems are some of the problems,” Hendsbee said.
“A property is a property is a property, and it’s a lienable charge that we can put on them.”
Hendsbee asked his fellow councillors to vote down the staff recommendation and vote instead in favour of an alternative, “ to include other properties such as recreation and seasonal properties.”
Coun. Waye Mason said he couldn’t support Hendsbee’s proposal.
“The intention here is, you don’t have the financial capacity to be able to continue to live in your home unless the municipality pays for a central water and septic,” Mason said.
“If it’s a place you are going to enjoy yourself, then that is something you need to fund through your bank, not through the municipality.”
Coun. Shawn Cleary agreed.
“We’re not Bank of Halifax,” Cleary said. “We are the municipality and we’re providing an emergency service to residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to deal with these water issues.”
But Hendsbee was originally able to get a majority of his colleagues on board. Council split the motion into two parts, voting in favour of the staff recommendation to add septic and alternative water systems to the bylaw, and voting 9-8 against the staff recommendation not to allow recreational or seasonal property owners to access the program.
The District 2 — Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore councillor then put his alternative on the floor, to permit seasonal and recreational properties to access the financing.
“I have big concerns with this,” said Coun. Tony Mancini. “We have many residents that are struggling for housing. There are some that don’t even have housing. We’re talking about here supporting those that are fortunate, are privileged enough to have a cottage? And we’re supporting them?”
Not everyone who has a second property is rich, argued Coun. Patty Cuttell.
“I think there’s an assumption that people who have a second property are wealthy and have access to funding and that isn’t always the case,” Cuttell said.
“There’s lots of people in District 11 who have inherited a property, it is a historic family property, they don’t have the means in order to upgrade things.”
Cuttell said people regularly lose their second properties because they can’t afford to maintain them, and she’s concerned about the quality of water entering the municipality’s waterways if people don’t upgrade their systems.
Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon echoed Cuttell’s comments.
“We are aware of quite a few residents who inherited property,” she said. “It wasn’t their intention. They’re not wealthy. They’ve inherited property and they’d like to keep it in the family.”
As the debate went on, Hendsbee lost support. By the time his alternative went to a vote, it was defeated 13-4, with councillors Iona Stoddard, Cuttell, and Deagle-Gammon supporting Hendsbee.
Hendsbee then tried for another alternative, on a staff report on allowing secondary property owners to access financing, but only if they proved they were on a low income.
That motion was narrowly defeated, 9-8.
The staff-recommended bylaw changes will come back to council for second reading before homeowners can access financing for on-site sewage disposal or alternative water systems.