City looking at possible sanitary sewer, water service line protection program

Published 8:53 pm Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The city of Albert Lea is exploring the idea of participating in a sanitary sewer and water service line protection program through the National League of Cities. 

The idea was presented at the Albert Lea City Council’s work session on Monday and would give residents an option for covering expensive repairs to private sewer or water service. 

Albert Lea Assistant Director of Public Works Ryan Hajek said through the program, residents would pay a monthly charge and if the resident had a failed or leaking water or sewer line within their responsibility, the repair would be covered through the program. 

“The program would provide a sense of insurance for them,” Hajek said. 

He said there are a large number of old homes in the city with decaying private infrastructure, as well as a high percentage of low-income households. Failed lines waste thousands of gallons of water and leaking sewer lines present an infiltration and environmental hazard.

In speaking with city leaders in Owatonna, Austin and Rochester, who already have similar programs, he said they thought it was a good program and added peace of mind to their communities. 

Hajek said he contacted the League of Minnesota Cities and then the National League of Cities, which works with a company called HomeServe to provide the service. 

The program would start as an opt-out program, meaning everyone in the city would initially be signed up for it and then they could opt out of it at any time if they choose not to participate, he said. Residents could decline coverage even before the program starts. If a resident later decided to opt in, there would be a 30-day window before any repairs would be covered. 

If there was a water leak or sewer issue, the resident would call the National League of Cities to file a claim.The National League of Cities would dispatch a local plumber to repair or replace lines and would require specific qualifications, including evidence of licensing, bonding and liability insurance, state background checks and drug screening. All repairs would need to meet state and local codes, and labor and materials for repair would be warrantied for at least one year by the plumber.

He referenced pricing of $1.46 a month for the external water line coverage and $3.87 a month for the external sewer water line coverage. The city could choose a royalty on top of that price to cover its costs. The program would cover $8,500 per call each for water and sewer. Monthly billing would be included on the city utility bill, and Hajek said the city’s finance department would be in charge of adding and deleting customers. 

City Manager Ian Rigg said he has seen situations where the program would have been helpful for residents, particularly for people who may not have the money to pay for thousands in repairs. Though it may not be for everyone, there is the opt-out option, he said. 

Third Ward Councilor Jason Howland said the program would give huge piece of mind for residents and said at a former house he lived in, he had gone through a similar situation. 

“I only wish we had this program back then to help me in that situation,” Howland said, noting that residents can be blindsided by the big expense. 

He said it would also be helpful for residents not to have to worry about hiring the plumber, as that would be taken care of through the program. 

First Ward City Councilor Rich Murray questioned how much additional work the program would give the finance department and questioned whether it would require additional staffing. 

City Engineer Steve Jahnke said he anticipated the program would require significant time in the beginning, and Finance Director Kristi Brutlag said she had some concerns about how the program would work, particularly with it as an opt-out program. She was also concerned about how to approach renters versus owners and whether the cost would need to be approved in the city’s fee schedule, among other things. She said if some of these details were worked out, she thought the finance department could absorb the additional duties. 

Murray also questioned how many other cities across the state are doing a similar program. 

Rigg said the program is nationwide, and noted there are a few other communities of comparable size doing something similar in-house. He also pointed out that there are several neighboring communities doing a similar program, which shows the importance of it. 

Rigg asked the councilors to think about the program and give city staff direction by the end of the week about whether they would like to see staff spend more time developing the program.