It’s a homeowner’s nightmare: A mystery leak turns into a $6,000 water or sewer lateral repair.
Laterals, the pipes that connect each house to the main pipes in the street, are the responsibility of the homeowner. When one starts to leak, the homeowner has to fix it — pronto.
But not for much longer. In the proposed 2013 budget, the city would fix all laterals and bill the cost of materials to the resident — a cost of about $1,250, rather than $6,000.
Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said telling residents about a lateral break is the worst news he ever has to give.
“These are very difficult conversations,” he said. “You have to tell them that’s their responsibility, which most of them didn’t know, and you need to fix it quickly, within a few weeks, and if you don’t we have to evict you.”
Many residents tell him they simply don’t have the money.
“It can be $6,000, $7,000, $8,000,” Olsen said. “Where do they come up with that?”
About 150 laterals break each year, and he said about a dozen owners can’t afford to make repairs. The city must turn off the water or cut off sewer access if repairs aren’t made — and that makes the home uninhabitable.
“Sometimes, people lose their homes,” Olsen said.
He tries to steer them to Better Neighborhoods Inc. and other groups that can use federal grants to make house repairs. But many residents don’t qualify for the grants.
“Most of them aren’t eligible,” he said, adding that he’s sympathetic. “Who has $6,000?”
Most people pay by borrowing the money or using a credit card, he said, adding that their decision isn’t easy.
“They’re hurting, too,” he said.
He proposed having the city’s sewer and water workers perform the work. The budget calls for hiring three more workers next year, who could handle that work between their other jobs. Sewer and water fees would not go up, despite the increase in workers.
The water department has paid down some of its debt, allowing it to make the additions while still cutting its budget from $8.1 million to $8.05 million. The sewer department budget would slightly increase, from $10.5 million to $10.8 million, but increased revenue for accepting sludge at the wastewater treatment plant would offset the increased cost.
Deputy Director of Water and Wastewater Paul Lafond said the city would benefit from letting city workers handle the laterals.
Many of the city’s potholes come from street cuts for sewer and water work, which are often repaired poorly by private companies. City workers try to inspect those cuts, but often companies do not take out a permit and work on weekends or evenings, when they hope no one will notice.
City workers would guarantee that the streets cuts are filled in correctly after the lateral is repaired.
And the laterals would be fixed faster, Olsen said. Residents often spend weeks trying to find a company that can do the work — or trying to raise the money to pay for it.
Broken laterals don’t just cost the city water or create a stink. Leaking water can damage a house’s foundation or eat into a road. In winter, plows must drive by every night to salt the area so the water doesn’t form ice.
“The quicker we can mobilize, the better it will be for everybody,” Olsen said.
Residents would cover the total cost of materials, which can vary depending on the length of the lateral. They would also have to pay the cost of the permit, which ranges from $500 to $600. The city can’t afford to lose that revenue, Olsen said.
The main savings is the labor. Residents wouldn’t have to pay for that.
“They’re already paying for the labor. It’s in the budget,” Olsen said. “It’s in their taxes.”