West Allis considers a rainy day fund for sewer lateral failures

Feb. 11, 2013

West Allis - A plan that for $32 a year could save residential property taxpayers thousands of dollars if their sewer lateral collapses is being explored by the city of West Allis.

Laterals carry sewage from homes to sewers in the street. If they fail and don't drain anymore, homeowners normally face bills of $6,000 to $12,000 if the laterals have to be dug up, said Joe Burtch, West Allis assistant city engineer. One recent case cost the homeowner $30,000.

Financial hits like that could force people out of their homes, Burtch said.

Under the proposed program, the city, using private contractors, would do that work without charging an assessment fee, instead tapping into a fund generated by the $32 annual fee to which everyone would contribute.

Even if the lateral doesn't fail, the city would rehabilitate it if it's in poor condition, he said.

MMSD-supported initiative

The effort would also be funded by money the city gets from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to get rain water out of the sewers. This year, that amount comes to more than $400,000, Burtch said.

The goal is to keep the water out of the sanitary sewers so they don't get so full that they back up into basements or have to be discharged into Lake Michigan and area rivers. Laterals that are in poor condition let in huge volumes of rain water, which in turn overload the sanitary sewers, Burtch explained.

The MMSD considers such infiltration into laterals to be an important issue, which is why it is offering money to effectively manage the problem, he said.

Unwelcome surprises

While the city has taken care of its sewers for years, most homeowners are completely unaware of sewer laterals until something happens, he said.

Homeowners are already playing Russian roulette in terms of their laterals.

The average lifespan of sewer laterals is 75 years and well over half the properties in West Allis are older than that, Burtch said.

"It's just a matter of time before they fail," he said, and when they do, it's usually without much warning because the problems are underground.

Problem-area focus

The proposed program also would enable the city to do sewer backup prevention work in areas experiencing the worst problems, Burtch said.

The city could pick a block or two in those hard-hit areas and offer homeowners free sump pumps if they let the city disconnect their drains from sanitary sewers. So, when it rains, the runoff wouldn't pour into sanitary sewers anymore, but would be pumped out onto yards to sink harmlessly into the soil.

With MMSD funding, West Allis already offers this choice to those living along street reconstruction projects. Up to 90 percent of homeowners snap up the offer, Burtch said.

Flow of support?

Before the plan can be finalized, a lot of details still must be worked out. Burtch will likely come before the Common Council next month with the proposal.

But support is already budding.

"When it comes to you, it comes as a shock," Alderman Gary Barczak said of the whopping bills for lateral repair or replacement.

"This is good for the long term," said Alderwoman Cathleen Probst.

"This is pretty much an insurance policy," said Alderman Dan Roadt.

But Alderman Marty Weigel wanted to know what happens if the MMSD money goes away and people who have been paying $32 a year still expect help if they need it.

"We're making a commitment to the residents" under this proposed program, Weigel said.

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