A water break on Front Street left several blocks caked in ice. Another break on Moyston Street left water bubbling up from the road, creating a huge hole.
But in each case, it wasn’t the city’s problem. The cause was broken water laterals, which must be repaired by the home owner.
But the cost of repairs can hit $6,000, and some owners just don’t have the money. It’s not something that can be put off; once water starts pouring out of the ground, Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen can wait only a few weeks.
If, after a month, the owner still hasn’t found the money to make the repairs, city workers shut off the water and tell the inhabitants they must move out. No one is allowed to live in a house with no water service.
Typically, it’s elderly homeowners and tenants who get kicked out, Olsen said. Breaking that news is the worst part of his job, he added.
So for more than a year he’s been advocating for a new city policy, in which city workers fix the laterals.
Last year, the City Council agreed to add the costs of the program to the 2014 budget. Olsen bought excavation equipment needed to do the work. But the council never agreed to let the program start.
After the Moyston Street break, which led to two families being evicted from their apartments, Olsen is trying again.
His latest idea: Either charge $48 per year to every property owner, or charge the cost of materials to the owners with broken laterals. The city would pay for the labor.
Both proposals have encountered resistance from the City Council — and from city workers, private plumbers and others.
One city worker, filling in a hole after a water lateral break Wednesday, said the city couldn’t afford to do the repairs because the cost of a mistake would be too high.
He worried that a worker would accidentally break a gas line — often found near water lines — and cause an explosion. He didn’t want the city to have to pay for such damages.
Private companies, including plumbers and those who dig up leaking pipes, have also objected on the grounds that the city would take over a big revenue stream. There’s 100 to 125 lateral breaks in the city each year, according to Deputy Director of Water and Wastewater Paul LaFond, and all of those are currently repaired by private contractors.
Some City Council members have also said they won’t support a city-funded repair program because it’s not fair to those who recently paid their own repair bills for lateral problems on their property.
Councilman Ed Kosiur, who replaced his own lateral two years ago, said the program also falls flat because the homeowner might end up having to hire a plumber to bring the house’s water connection up to code.
But Olsen said that wouldn’t be as serious a situation as a break.
“The water would not be running down the street,” he said, noting that his crews had to salt daily for three weeks after the Front Street break.
Councilman Vince Riggi wasn’t convinced either, and he said many city residents also would be opposed.
“If somebody had a water lateral replaced in the last 20 years, they’re not going to need one” in their lifetime, he said.
But others saw the program as a way of solving a major problem.
“I think it’s a good program,” said Councilman John Mootooveren.
Councilman Carl Erikson said he didn’t want to charge people until their lateral broke, but said he’d support a program with a flat fee per repair job.
Now the debate may be focusing on how much the city would charge. The council plans to discuss it again April 7.
By then, city workers say, there will be more breaks. The long, harsh winter has taken its toll, and until the frost is gone from the ground, they expect it to continue to cause problems.