The Public Eye

Sacramento shifts expensive sewer repair to homeowners

For as long as anyone can remember, the city of Sacramento has picked up the cost of repairing and replacing the section of the underground sewer system that runs from homeowners’ property lines to the sewer main beneath the street. The practice was in place despite language in the city code stating the work should be the responsibility of homeowners.

But last month, the Department of Utilities quietly stopped fixing that part of the system – known as the lower lateral – in a move that will likely cost homeowners thousands of dollars for each repair.

Utilities officials contend that the section of city code governing the sewer system makes it clear that lower lateral lines belong to homeowners and that city crews have repaired the pipes as a courtesy. Michael Malone, an operations manager with Utilities, said the department repairs or replaces more than 200 lower lateral lines a year, spending roughly $900,000 on labor and materials.

“People just thought it was good customer service,” Malone said. “But we don’t own it. Anytime we’re doing that work, if something goes wrong, then we are possibly responsible.”

Malone said the department plans to mail fliers to homeowners in January with details on the new policy. Department officials said they did not have to seek City Council approval before making the change because they were not asking to alter a city ordinance.

Malone said Sacramento’s is one of the rare utilities departments in the region that had taken care of the lower laterals. However, the Sacramento Area Sewer District, which serves more than 1 million residents – including thousands of homes within city limits – does look after the lines. According to the district’s ordinance, the district is responsible for “inspecting, maintaining, and repairing the lower lateral.”

The city’s repair change comes as the city debates whether to enact stiff increases on residential utility bills – including rates for wastewater management.

A proposal listed in an Oct. 27 staff report to the City Council shows the city wants to raise wastewater rates 9 percent starting in 2017. The 9 percent yearly hikes would continue through 2020 and add $9.23 a month to the average home bill by 2020, according to the staff report. The city is also proposing increases to water and storm drainage rates.

The City Council is expected to debate the rate increases early next year. City officials have said the hikes are necessary to fund long overdue improvements to the city’s aging wastewater infrastructure and to make up for years of underinvestment in the system by prior administrations.

Ceasing the repair of lower lateral lines will help the city speed up the improvement work, utilities officials said.

Department of Utilities Director Bill Busath said the estimated 4,500 hours of worker time that is allocated each year to fixing lower laterals would be better spent fixing and replacing the city’s aging wastewater system. City Manager John Shirey told the City Council earlier this month that the replacement schedule for wastewater infrastructure in the city, under the current allocation of time and money, is 650 years. He said the replacement schedule should be every 100 years.

“I see this as a matter of efficiency,” Busath said. “If this was something we were supposed to be doing, we would do it. That money is better spent elsewhere; we have plenty of needs in the capital improvement program where that money can be put.”

The city’s lawyers also raised concerns with the liability of utility crews working on what city code describes as private property, according to Malone. City code states that the entire section of the sewer system between customers’ homes and the main line beneath the street belongs to homeowners.

Busath and Malone said the city still intends to tackle minor fixes to lower lateral lines, such as line blockages. “If it’s not a total collapse of the line, we will attempt to do it,” Malone said. “And if we can remove the blockage, we will do that.”

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis