Westside mess led to wastewater policy change a year ago
Slight rate hikes for all stem from benevolence
About a year ago, spurred by a calamity on the Westside, the Colorado Springs City Council approved a major change in the
way City Utilities handles the costs of wastewater backups.
Under the old policy, when Utilities only paid claims if it could be proven at fault, the owners of the five afflicted homes in the 2100 block of West Bijou Street would have been liable for all cleanup expenses after raw sewage jetted backwards into their homes, even though at least three of them had recently cleaned or replaced their service lines.
The new plan, which council applied retroactively last March, states that if people can prove they've had their lines cleaned within two years they won't have to pay for home repairs resulting from sewage backups.
This benevolence has come with a price - as City Utilities predicted it would in arguing against the policy change last year. During the four years the old policy was in effect (2000-03), the average annual numbers were $146,783 from 38 paid claims. By contrast, in 2004, the total cost was $410,000 from 91 paid claims, according to Lisa Mills, a Utilities public affairs officer.
The higher trend appears to be continuing into 2005. Through the first two months of the year, the city had already paid out $97,000 from 11 claims, Mills said.
The citywide wastewater-treatment rate increase necessary to cover Utilities' higher claim-payment costs averages out to 5 cents a month per customer, Mills said.
Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, who led the push for the new policy in March 2004, thinks that's a good investment. “The policy is doing what I'd hoped it would do - freeing up individual rate payers and spreading the cost over everyone,” said Heimlicher, whose District 3 includes the Westside. “It has a very minimal impact to the whole system.”
But statistics don't show how dismal an experience a backup can be, the council member noted. “Last year (on Bijou), I trudged through a lady's basement where the sewage line had backed up,” he said. “I threw my shoes away when I got home.”
While he was at her house, the woman called a service to clean up the mess. She was told a crew would be sent only if she paid $1,000 cash that night - which, fortunately, she was able to do, Heimlicher said.
The changed backup policy means people in newer homes and areas are subsidizing those in older homes/areas (where service and collection lines tend to need more maintenance), the council member pointed out. “I live in a fairly new house, seven years old,” he said. “I could make the argument, 'Why should I pay for them? I don't have any problems.' But this gets back to what the community is all about.”
Additionally, this new-subsidizing-old scenario flies in the face of allegations by some community activists that new development does not pay its own way, Heimlicher observed.
Utilities does not pay for all damages in a backup situation. “All Utilities will do is clean, disinfect and fix the line,” Heimlicher noted. Replacement of damaged personal property is up to the property owner.
For Westside areas with zip codes 80904 and 80905, City Utilities stoppage numbers for the years 2002 through 2004 show the following:
2002 - four claims, with City Utilities paying $22,261.
2003 - one claim ($90).
2004 (with new policy in effect) - 18 claims ($40,209).
Separate of backup-policy matters, City Utilities started a program in 2001 called the Sanitary Sewer Evaluation and Rehabilita- tion Program (SSERP), which evaluates the existing wastewater system to see where repairs or replacements are necessary. One of the target areas for SSERP has been the older Westside, which has a main line (since upgraded) dating back to 1931.
This upgrade policy, along with its regular sewer-main cleaning efforts, puts Colorado Springs at the forefront in that category, according to Utilities officials. While Colorado Springs typically has fewer than 100 backups a year, a Utilities official told a meeting of the Organization of Westside Neighbors last year that he knew of one city that has more than 1,000.
Although some residents have questioned if growth in the Westside has pushed its aged lines beyond their capacity, Mills said that all are well within the 85 percent maximum that would automatically require a larger-line replacement.
Prior to 2000, the city had a backup policy that was considered “very liberal in the wastewater industry,” according to a 2003 memo to the City Council/ Utilities Board by Utilities Chief Executive Officer Phil Tollefson. “Unless there was direct evidence establishing the blockage occurred within a customer's service line, we typically accepted responsibility and paid nearly all claims,” Tollefson states.
However, in the wet year of 1999, groundwater tables rose, causing seepage into older lines and excessive water volume and a number of backups. After Utilities wrote checks that year for $2.2 million from 304 claims, the city stiffened the policy in 2000 - albeit offering customers insurance policies in the event of backups.
Actually the 2000-2003 policy was fairly typical of others around the state, Tollefson's memo states. Front Range examples of cities where customers must prove the treatment provider is at fault before a claim is paid are the cities of Greeley, Boulder, Aurora, Englewood and Denver.
Westside Pioneer article