Storms like Hurricane Sandy are extraordinary events, and it’s hard to plan for them because you don’t know exactly where the damage will occur or how bad it will be.
But breaks in water and sewer laterals, which connect each house to the main pipes in the street, happen every day, especially in a city with ancient infrastructure like Schenectady. And, as part of the proposed 2013 budget, city officials have just come up with a better way to deal with them — that is to say, fix them.
When a lateral breaks, fixing it is the homeowner’s responsibility. Many are shocked to learn this, but not as shocked as when they find out the cost: between $6,000 and $8,000. According to General Services Commissioner Carl Olsen, roughly 10 percent of the 150 or so homeowners whose laterals break each year can’t afford to fix them, forcing the city to shut off water or sewer service, which makes the home uninhabitable. Others fix them, but many must borrow money to do so.
The city’s plan is to have its own workers fix all laterals and bill the cost of materials to the resident — about $1,250. That will save not only money but time, often spent trying to find a company to do the work or scrape up the money. And during that time, leakage from the broken pipe can do damage to the home or the street.
Having city employees do the work will also solve another major problem: potholes from shoddy patching of the road by companies that repair the pipes.
Three new employees would have to be hired, but taxes wouldn’t have to be raised because the water and sewer budgets are separate from the general budget. Nor would water or sewer fees have to be raised because the water department has paid down some debt, allowing it to make the additions while still cutting its budget, and the sewer department has new revenues from accepting sludge at the wastewater treatment plant.
The employees could also be used to do other work in winter, when lateral breaks are less of a problem, such as snowplowing and fixing breaks in the city’s bigger water and sewer lines.
Overall it sounds like a good plan, one that the City Council should support.