Sorenson, Brooks object to search of homes

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 1999

A state mandated house-by-house search of Albert Lea homes passed a narrow City Council vote Monday, but not before two councilors criticized the search.

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

A state mandated house-by-house search of Albert Lea homes passed a narrow City Council vote Monday, but not before two councilors criticized the search.

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A third councilor also voted against the search for illegal stormwater connections into the city’s sanitary sewer system, but didn’t speak during council discussions.

At the direction of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the council approved a $144,250 contract with Wenck and Associates to search all Albert Lea homes for sump pumps and downspouts illegally cross connected into the sanitary sewer drains.

It will begin in January and is expected to last until April.

If Albert Lea homeowners don’t allow the Maple Plain, Minn. firm access into their homes, the city will obtain the necessary administrative warrants for the searches, said City Manager Paul Sparks.

He said if the council didn’t approve the search study, the city would face penalty fines. Wenck and Associates was the lowest of three bidders with one bid at $425,000.

Councilors Ron Sorenson, Al Brooks and David McPherson voted against the search. Along with Albert Lea Mayor Marv Wangen, Councilors Mary Krone, Don Mathison and Warren Amudson voted in favor of it.

&uot;Doesn’t the MPCA have a problem with the constitutionality of searching people’s homes?&uot; asked Sorenson. &uot;Don’t you have to have just cause to search homes?&uot;

&uot;I don’t feel comfortable as a council member telling homeowners they have no choice,&uot; added Brooks.

Sorenson said he was also uncertain if a MPCA letter sent to the city included the search.

But Sparks said the MPCA directed the city to perform the search after it received resident complaints about the city pumping rain-diluted sewage from sanitary lift stations onto city streets and into the storm sewer system twice this summer.

The pumping prevented sewage from backing into at least 1,200 basements after heavy rains flooded sanitary lift stations in the city; homeowners who connected their sump pumps and downspouts into the sanitary drains contributed to the problem.

&uot;Our community problem was brought to the attention of the MPCA by our people,&uot; Wangen said, adding assessors also have unhindered access into homes to preform valuations.

Sparks said the search’s purpose is also to educate homeowners about the problem.

When cross connections are found, he said the affected homeowners will receive information on how to properly direct their sump pumps outside, where the water will flow into the storm sewer system.

Some homeowners direct the pumps into basement drains, because outside hoses often freeze in the spring, he said. But burying the lines will solve that problem.

If the homeowners don’t redirect their sump pumps and downspout outside within an undetermined time, they will face fines, he said last week.

&uot;We’re going to have to deal with the homes,&uot; he said, adding other communities are experiencing the same problems. &uot;It’s something we haven’t relished doing in the past. Part of this is an education process.

&uot;The MPCA won’t let us not do the study, otherwise we will get fined,&uot; he added.

Sparks said there are also federal concerns that could cause the city to spend millions to upgrade its sewer system. While state regulations allow for sewer mishaps and bypasses, federal lawmakers are now considering a no tolerance policy.

If that happens, the city would have to completely redo its sewer system at costs reaching $30 million.

&uot;The problem is being addressed at the federal level for much stronger regulations than we have now,&uot; Sparks said.

&uot;It would cost so much that nobody would want to live here,&uot; he said.