The Stories...so far
Part 3 - 2015/1/15
Go to Parts 1 and 2
OTTAWA HOMEOWNERS FED UP WITH CITY HALL STALLING
By Jeanne Rouleau
Storm and sanitary sewers are the property of the City of Ottawa. During a quick spring thaw or heavy rains, there is a high risk of sewage backup into homeowners' basements in some areas. And, there are many of these areas identified all across the City.
On May 11, 2005, the City of Ottawa passed Bylaw 2005-209, referred to as "Residential Protective Plumbing Program for Sewer Backup Protection By-law" (RPPP), to which there is only one amendment 2006-390, but otherwise nothing has changed since it was written.
The RPPP grant was set up to help residents living in the City's many flood areas, to protect their homes from damages. To be eligible, homes must be residential units within the City of Ottawa; properties served by City sewers; and properties within a historically flooded area.
Applications by eligible homeowners are filed with the City's Deputy City Manager's office. It is clearly stated in the Bylaw that the grant pays; 'the lesser of 100% of the cost of the work or $4000, where basement or cellar flooding resulting from City sewer backup has occurred previously; or the lesser of 50% of the cost of the work or $2500, where basement or cellar flooding resulting from City sewer backup has not occurred previously.' People, it is important to note that people whose basements flooded, but didn't report it to the City or their insurance company, only qualify for the lesser of 50% of the costs. An unfair practice...especially when the homes on two sides of their property were approved at 100%.
On January 8, 2015, Mr. T. Racine, a resident living in a known flooded area of the city, decided to share his, so far, frustrating experiences with the City's Program.
Racine had not applied to the Program in 2013, when many of his neighbours had, but this year he was ready to go ahead. So on July 3, 2014, Racine submitted his application, along with all the required documents.
At the beginning of September 2014, he received a call from Nima Aghniaey, at R.V. Anderson Limited (RVA), the consulting firm retained by the City, to do the in-home investigations, and assessments. During the call, the date and time for the RVA visit was set for Sep 18th.
A total of three people arrived at Racine's door; the RVA rep, and two reps from Multi Drain Inc., a company hired by the City to perform the closed circuit television (CCTV) camera work.
Multi Drain Inc.'s role was to inspect the pipes for breaks, blockages, or sumps, while the RVA rep determined the protective plumbing needs and identified the scope of the work to be done.
Although it had not been mentioned at the time he made the appointment, Racine allowed all three, access to his basement.
On October 3, 2014, Racine received the RVA report, dated September 18th, along with the diagrams so that he had all the details available for the plumbing companies to quote.
In the report, Trevor Kealey, Project Manager at RVA, stated that Racine had been approved for an amount of up to $4,000., and if he wished to proceed with the additional work RVA had recommended to further protect his home, his maximum reimbursement would be raised to $7,500. Please note that these amounts are inclusive of all taxes. But, the sumps in the sanitary and storm lines would not be covered by the Program.
It also said that as the homeowner, Racine would be 'responsible for contacting at least three plumbers to obtain a quote for the work described in the letter, and if any of the three quotes were deemed unreasonable an additional quote would be requested.' By the way, the definition of unreasonable is 'if the City determines that one or more plumbers consulted are not sufficiently independent of each other'.
From a good number of documents, such as checklists, RVA reports, and emails, applications received prior to June 15, 2014, only indicated the need to submit a 'quote'.
The closing paragraph of the letter read, "Please note that if the work is not done before 6 months from the date of this letter, your file will be closed. If you decide to reapply after your file has been closed, state your protective plumbing file number (RPPP-xx-xxxx) in order to expedite the review process."
When consulted, his neighbours assured him that they had NOT been requested to submit three quotes. One quote had been sufficient, as long as it was within the maximum allowed, and the work had proceeded unobstructed in any way. Within a month and a half, of submitting the 'Paid in Full' account to the City, they had received their funds.
They also recommended the companies they had entrusted their work to, to their complete satisfaction. Having seen some of the work, Racine selected a company to do the job in his home. He submitted his quote to RVA. It was within the amount of grant he had been approved for, but the City still maintained their need for more quotes.
Remembering what his neighbours had told him and having seen their letters to proof it, Racine sought clarification with the City without success. He read the bylaw and thought there must have been a mistake. By-Law 2005-209 Section 12 (a) reads "obtain and submit to the Deputy City Manager at least one (1) quotation, but no more than three (3) quotations for the work with additional quote(s) required until such time as, in the opinion of the Deputy City Manager a reasonable quote is received".
Racine contacted over eight (8) plumbing companies. The company he wants to do his work, two companies who didn't want to visit the site, two companies who charged for their quotes, one company who would not do the work as outlined by RVA and withdrew from bidding, two companies who didn't even bother giving a quote, and so on.
Getting nowhere with the City, he decided to email Councillor Hubley, on December 2nd. He explained how difficult it was to obtain valid quotes; how the larger companies were charging between $50.00 and $80.00 for a quote, which would not be reimbursed by the Program; the smaller companies were not bothering to quote; and those who quoted, did so over the phone without visiting the site. "I do not want to submit these quotes because I lack confidence in their ability to do the work properly," he says.
His email further stated that two different people at the City, on three separate occasions, said that the 'three-quote-rule' had been an 'office directive', and while contrary to the Bylaw was now required, having been issued from the RPPP Program Manager's office; that Nima Aghniaey, the Project Coordinator at RVA determined that three quotes were needed for the job; and that perhaps the work was more difficult than normal and required additional quotes.
Racine went on to say that when he attempted to speak to the City's RPPP Manager, he was told that they (the City) could not give out that information; and that neither the City, nor RV Anderson had ever returned one of his calls.
'I want to know (Mr. Hubley) how this program you helped get started, got messed up this way by City administration," he concludes. His concerns are legitimate.
On December 3, 2014, Natasha Kavanagh of Councillor Hubley's office, replied to Racine. She said that the Program Manager had explained that the By-law states that the program representatives can ask for up to three quotes for the work being recommended under the program, and
'this is to ensure that both the City and the homeowners are getting the right price for the necessary work, as well to give the homeowner freedom to choose who they will contract to conduct the work'.
The fact is that no one is questioning whether they can or cannot request up to three quotes. The question is why they request of all the applicants post June 15, 2014, a minimum of three quotes.
The Bylaw, already clearly states the maximum grant amounts, why then is the City concerned with the question of price, when a quote falls within the allowable grant?
As for 'giving the homeowner freedom to choose who they will contract to conduct the work', it is not the City's responsibility. If residents like Racine already know who they trust to do their work, and the quote is within the approved amount, then why complicate and prolong the process with needless request.
A great number of Ottawa homeowners, who prefer to remain anonymous, are confused as to why they are being treated differently from those who applied prior to June 15th, 2014. The earlier applicant's letters clearly state, "as a homeowner you will be responsible for contacting a plumber for the work described below. The quote is to be forwarded to my attention at the above address before construction commences."
Changing the rules has resulted in many plumbing companies not taking the RPPP seriously, since they won't get the jobs, thereby, making it increasingly difficult for owners to move forward with what must be done to protect their homes. One of Racine's neighbours is so fed up that he's already given up, saying he won't get the work done.
The real question here is who initiated, authorized, implemented, and supported the changes, and, who stands to benefit the most from it, because it's certainly is not the homeowners.
The City's Council Meetings, 'Agendas and Minutes' from May and June 2014, do NOT show any meetings during which the RPPP changes in protocol were discussed, Therefore, no decision had been taken by Council, and there have been no changes to the bylaw. Why was the 'three-quote-rule' allowed to happen in the first place? And, what are the People to think about City Management, when directives are changed without Council's approval? Was Council aware that this was going on?
It has been termed an office decision, more specifically a decision made in RPPP Program Manager, Shelley McDonald, and Frank Crooks, Program Manager, previously employed at R. V. Anderson. This was confirmed in an email to Racine sent Jan 8, 2015, Nima Aghniaey replied 'I am familiar with the City of Ottawa by-law however, as per the latest changes to the Protective Plumbing Program, the City requires homeowners to submit 3 estimates; unfortunately I will not be able to issue an approval letter based on the one estimate you have provided so far unless I have authorization from the City. Please contact the program manager, Ms. Shelley McDonald at (613) 580-2424 X20992 for further details'
Based on the RVA report and Trevor Kealey's closing paragraph, Racine is currently 4 months into the 6 months limit, before his application is closed. Perhaps worst if you look at Section 13 of Bylaw 2005-209 which states "In the event of non-compliance by the applicant with the provisions of section 12 hereof, the City may withdraw its approval of the grant.' The clock is ticking for him and may others.
When asked, City officials refused comment for this article.
For a full copy of the Bylaw, visit the City of Ottawa website for details athttp://ottawa.ca/en/city-hall/funding/environmental-program-funding/residential-protective-plumbing-program