SUNWATER has opened the floodgates on ratepayer pain with an unprecedented attempt to raise the Central Highlands council's raw water supply costs by 780% to $2.2 million.
Already facing a rising tide of dissent over its latest town water rates hikes between 10 and 30%, councillors voted to reject the new fee structure and plead a hardship case with the State Government instead of putting another estimated $200 a year impost on ratepayers.
Councillor Paul Bell said the charges should be "noted with dismay", but Cr Kevin Pickersgill was more direct after revealing an "unsustainable and absolutely ridiculous" 110% water rates rise over five years had been discussed in budget deliberations.
"This is bull****," Cr Pickersgill said.
"Do you think that it's fair on people?
"… I think we should object to this as strongly as we can."
Mayor Peter Maguire said while SunWater had flagged its intentions in February, the bad news had been confirmed by letter late last month.
The raw water pricing agreement first struck in 1994 expires on June 30.
Under the historical contract, raw water was charged at rates between $8.80 and $68.64 per megalitre in a two-tier structure.
"SunWater has noted it's a price shock, but it's a huge price shock," Cr Maguire said.
"We totally reject the whole thing but the problem we've got is they are a monopoly.
"Someone said they will cut the water off on June 30 and I don't know how they can do that … but it's like the electricity situation - they've got us over a barrel."
Cr Maguire said SunWater had proposed to phase in the rise over five years, and $400,000 will be in the 2013-14 budget to hedge against the possibility a review of the price determination is unsuccessful.
"We've been told this could equate to $200 in additional costs per year per ratepayer," he said.
"There are other councils we are aware of going through this process, and water in south-east Queensland has gone through the roof as well."
Cr Peter Maundrell queried SunWater's rationale when irrigators locally paid between $40-60 a megalitre and the new proposed rate for the council as a high priority user was $385.79ML.
"It's the same water - comes out of the same dam," he argued as Cr Bell pointed out the Central Highlands water allocation was 100% guaranteed, unlike that of irrigators.
"We should reject this outright - this is just a cash grab and we shouldn't even contemplate it."
Infrastructure, Assets and Public Facilities general manager Geoff Brayford's report to the council said the cost increase would be a "severe" price shock to the council and Emerald community.
"It will also come on top of the introduction of operating, depreciation and debt servicing costs of the new East Nogoa (water) treatment plant, which will mean a substantial impact on the Emerald township supply," Mr Brayford said.
SunWater is the council's only option for water supply.
The council's 2013-14 budget will be handed down on June 26.
Pumping for answers over water shockers
SO, WERE the water rates bill shockers that deluged Central High- lands households loaded with rises between 10 and 30% and seemingly inexplicable spikes across all towns real?
Councillor Kevin Pickersgill tried to flush out answers at Wednes- day's council meeting, only to be really none the wiser.
"Have we come to any conclusions about the last water charges - what went wrong, what isn't working (because) there's a lot of people hurting out there and can't pay it?" he asked.
The Central Queensland News and Blackwater Herald have highlighted shocking bill anomalies, including Springsure pensioner Jill Milham's being lumped with $3971 in water rates, but it appears the council can go one better.
Mayor Peter Maguire revealed a council staffer had a $5000 bill and "they found a very significant water leak and they had no idea" of the damage being potentially done to the home's foundations.
Cr Pickersgill said he had been told of rate- payers being slugged $480 if their water meter was checked and found not to be faulty.
Councillors heard the meters generally "always read short, not long".
No apologies from SunWater for hike
SUNWATER is unapologetic about the massive hit to raw water charges for the Central Highlands council.
It is simply bringing prices "into line with current charges" for holders of high-priority water allocations.
The council has a river and channel/pipeline contract with SunWater.
Four contracts cover the Gregory pipeline, Nogoa River and Selma Channel.
"These contracts will need replacement as soon as possible, and pricing brought into line with current charges," water accounts manager Donna Hodgon wrote in a May 30 letter to Infrastructure Assets and Public Facilities general manager Geoff Brayford.
"It is therefore quite clear that SunWater and council will need to liaise closely to determine appropriate phase-in provisions or other arrangements to avoid potential price shocks to ratepayers or immediate budget difficulties for council."
SunWater is claiming its pricing policy was re-evaluated following the Queensland Competition Authority's review of irrigation water prices in 2012.
"SunWater has since finalised the re-calculation of non-irrigation prices resulting from that review, based on QCA-accepted methodologies," Ms Hodgon said.
The new charges were flagged in an earlier letter to the council's chief executive officer, Bryan Ottone, dated February 18 from Ms Hodgon.
The council has until June 30 to respond to any phase-in pricing arrangements, or an interim agreed position needs agreement while discussions continue.