In a crucial committee of the whole meeting held last week, local officials deliberated on the alarming state of the city’s water and sewer services, recognizing the imminent threat posed by aging infrastructure.

City engineers and public works staff brought attention to the urgent need for repairs and upgrades, as they identified vulnerabilities that could potentially lead to a catastrophe.

Rick Green, director of public works and engineering services at City of Merritt, said at the committee that the city has “some basic high level risks in both water and sewer.”

“I consider it basic municipal services and unfortunately, the failure on those two things is noted usually by evacuation,” he added. “If we’re unable to correctly pull sewer from people’s houses or provide them safe drinking water, those are critical failures in a community.”

Green added that the city did an inspection on the pipe bridge across Nicola River by Norgaards and expressed his worries about the current conditions of the location.

“It’s not pretty. There’s a whole bunch of rotten unsupported members underneath the back walls of that thing and one little shift on that can be fairly catastrophic as far as the impact,” he said.

He added that the location is a priority for the city right now, as it is being treated as a “high risk of failure” before moving into other projects. 

Green also mentioned that public works’ staff is running into a lot of old galvanized lines and a lot of clay lines that are outdated and pose risks.

“All of these things are one shift of the clay or, you know, a flood event of some sort,” he said. “Whether it’s groundwater or a freeze away from fair to catastrophic failure.”

Coun. Dana Egan expressed her concern over the gravity of the situation and lack of maintenance over the years. 

“How do we find ourselves in this position? It’s ridiculous. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a preventive maintenance program going,” she said. 

Mayor Mike Goetz, who was a city councillor prior to being a mayor, said that during the 10 years he has been in council, “the city had preventing maintenance, but reality dictated.” 

“The money that you had put away went somewhere else and that’s pretty much the way it goes. There should have been a little bit more intestinal fortitude to say ‘hey, we’re not going to do that’,” he said. “Ultimately what ended up happening. We had great plans and then we moved it somewhere else where it was needed.”

At the meeting, Coun. Wendy Charney stressed the need to look at the main priorities to decide how to spend the money wisely and not rely on a “bandage approach.” 

“I would really like to start doing priorities and maybe ‘raining in’ a little bit of how we can do some of these,” she said. “The bandage approach is great, but as you know it doesn’t last and then you spend that money in the ‘band-aid’ and then you have to fix the ‘band-aid’. Well you might as well have done it completely properly the first time.”

Green agreed to the statement made by Coun. Charney, saying that “with some decision on priorities, we can go back and flesh things out and focus on the things that are most important.”

“I expect us to work this back and get some focus and target certain areas that are most important, but at the same time, it’s just not about gaining those efficiencies. A lot of cases it’s thinking outside of the box,” he said.

Coun. Charney added that the city can’t keep giving taxpayers the responsibility to pay for services through big tax increases.

Cynthia White, chief administrative officer at City of Merritt, said that taxpayers are the ones responsible for paying for services like water and sewer.

“If the design has some specifications that are statutory and, you know, that we legally have to meet in the water and sewer sector, there is no way to do it cheaper,” she said. “Unfortunately it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to pay for services which is why you get to places like Osoyoos, where they had a 39 per cent tax increase.”

White added that those increases are usually done because that’s the only guaranteed income, since grants are an assumption and not guaranteed income.

City officials are now working on a comprehensive plan to secure funding for these essential repairs and upgrades. The proposed plan includes seeking federal and provincial grants, as well as exploring potential tax increases.

A decision on the financial plan is yet to come at upcoming city council meetings next year.