February 28th, 2024

COVID-19 utility relief program expanded to included condo dwellers

By COLLIN GALLANT on September 14, 2021.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A program to provide COVID relief to utility customers has been expanded to include condo dwellers, though one councillor says the $4.81 million shouldn’t be spent so close to an election.

Coun. Kris Samraj told council on Sept. 7 that paying out an additional $310,000 is in line with the program, but implied that considering the city’s financial outlook, the whole fund may look like a pre-election spending spree.

“Out of an interest of fairness I’ll support it, but I’m conflicted,” he said. “It’s awkward when politicians hand out money so close to the election.”

Samraj cited a 2015 study by the energy division that stated more than $600 million had been paid out of the energy business since 2000, either in dividends to the municipality or rate subsidies (prior to 2011)

“It underscores the benefits of owning a utility, but also the risks… our interests can be short term, which don’t always play to the long-term interests of the business,” said Samraj.

Energy and utility chair Phil Turnbull said that power plant profits will be high this year after a cold winter and hot summer.

“Yes, we need to be financially responsible, but the citizens whose money we take in taxes and utilities deserve help when help is needed,” he said.

Turnbull also said the money would be paid from this year’s profits, rather than from the Heritage Savings Fund as previously stated (though extraordinary profits are deposited in the trust fund at year end).

Council voted earlier this summer to provide $4.5 million in a second COVID relief package to utility customers.

That provides each utility account with a $136 credit this month after a May 2020 package negated an across-the-board tax increase and $2 million went to business grants.

After council’s approval, payments will be also made to specific condo associations which often have a single utility bill for all units in a building. Those organizations will determine how they are distributed.

“It will cover those who were inadvertently missed in the first wave,” said Dennis Egert the city’s director of corporate services.

Officials had previously stated they hope landlords in utilities-included rental apartments would extend some relief to tenants.

Egert said about $8,000 had been donated back to the city’s Community Warmth program, which provides one-time help to clear up overdue bills for those in financial hardship.

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