A solution to the longstanding question of how to help low-income homeowners pay for emergency water and sewer line repairs may finally be at hand.
Councilman Ed Kosiur is proposing that the city ask for work proposals from private plumbers, and select one or more companies each year to handle emergency lateral pipe repairs.
The city would pay the plumbers, and then put the cost on the homeowner’s tax bill, broken into eight payments over the course of two years.
If the homeowner made each payment on time, there would be no interest charges.
He’s hoping the council will hammer out the finer details of the plan beginning in September.
If a water or sewer lateral — the pipes between a house and the main in the street — breaks, the homeowner must pay to repair the break if it is not on city property. Digging up and fixing the lines can be quite expensive, but the work has to be done, and quickly, to avoid unhealthy and unsanitary conditions.
City Council members have been wrestling for years with the issue of homeowners who cannot afford to pay for a broken lateral. They often have no idea that they’re on the hook for a repair that generally costs $4,000 or more, and those with poor credit and limited savings face a serious crisis.
If they can’t fix the broken pipe within a short period of time — generally one to four weeks — authorities will declare their house inhabitable, and order them to move out.
City officials have long talked of a program in which city workers could just fix the pipes for those who cannot afford it, and the City Council has been sympathetic, the question is: who pays for it?
Various proposals have hit snags, including the idea of a citywide fee, which was panned by those who have recently repaired their own laterals on their own dime.
Others have objected to the city workers fixing the pipes, because it would take work away from private plumbers.
The new plan addresses those concerns, Kosiur said.
“As for fees, I’m all fee’d out, as many folks are,” he said, adding that he paid $4,500 to have his water lateral replaced a few years ago.
“Why should I pay for something I just got replaced?” he said.
And, he added, he doesn’t think it would be reasonable for the city to hire full-time employees, with benefits, to do the work.
“Why should we hire a four-man crew? There’s certainly not 300 service calls a year,” he said. “That’s why I’d like to stay with a small business.”
He said the city could hire a different plumber every year, or pick a group of businesses and rotate through them over the course of the year. The second option would give the city flexibility if several laterals broke at once, he said.
Residents would not be required to use the program, and it’s not yet clear if it would be available to everyone. Kosiur said he was particularly concerned about owner-occupants who were up-to-date on their taxes but genuinely could not afford the sudden expense.
There were two recent cases in which senior citizens on public assistance faced eviction from their houses over the issue. In both cases, the county used temporary assistance to pay for the repairs, but Kosiur said that program would not be available to everyone who could not afford the repair.
“Can you imagine being evicted because you can’t afford to have it replaced?” he said.