Lee Huggins knew he was in trouble when a repair on the sewer service line connecting his Killeen rental property to the sewer main under the city street failed.
Huggins, of Austin, had struggled with a faulty service line, which connected his home’s drains and toilets to the city’s regional sewer system, for several years when his plumber told him a tree root had likely broken through the pipe 13 feet past his property line in the public right of way.
The initial quote to replace the line was between $8,000 and $13,000, Huggins said.
When Huggins went to the city to ask for them to complete the repair, he received a surprising response.
“I was handed a letter that there’s a court case out of Amarillo in 1980, and it’s city policy to not accept responsibility for sewer laterals (service lines) when my subdivision was built out,” Huggins told the Herald.
What does that mean for Killeen homeowners? If your sewer service line fails in the public right of way, you’re on the hook for every dime of those repairs. Some homeowners say the repairs can stretch as high as $25,000 if street cuts and backfills to city specifications are required.
Following his experience — which the city said affects about two to three homeowners per month to varying degrees — Huggins scored a win last week when the Killeen City Council under public pressure agreed to set aside about $379,000 in the 2019 budget to aid homeowners with service-line failures.
However, the underlying policy absolving the city of responsibility is still in place, and this year’s win for homeowners could be short lived when the council is confronted with the full cost of changing its policy.
As currently constructed, the city’s $379,000 pot of money has no set controls on how and why it can be used, although council members have floated a few options — including only covering repairs for homeowners 65 years or older.
Meanwhile, the city is busy piecing together a draft ordinance and estimated costs for a possible program, but city leadership has said formally accepting responsibility for service lines in the public right of way could “open a can of worms” in the future.
After the council agreed to set aside the $379,000 for sewer-line repairs, the question remains how those funds will be used in the coming fiscal year and what repairs will qualify.
Killeen Director of Communications Hilary Shine was mum Thursday on what the future will hold on how those aside funds for repairs will be used.
“An ordinance must be developed and adopted to establish all of this,” Shine said. “Staff is developing all of this now and will provide it to council as soon as it is ready.”
While a possible ordinance could take a number of directions, preliminary costs for a possible program are significant.
During a workshop Aug. 7, the city outlined a number of possible scenarios for the council to take over service-line repairs that all come with hefty price tags.
The first required the city to install “cleanouts,” or maintenance lines, at the property lines of every home in the city of Killeen and require the hiring of a three-person crew with a pickup, backhoe and trailer.
That plan required a whopping $50 million initial capital investment and $175,000 in recurring maintenance costs each year.
The second plan included installing “cleanouts” at the property line of every new home that is built and older homes where failures occur, heading off needed maintenance and future repairs. That plan would require an initial investment of $200,000 and $211,000 in recurring costs, but would largely not address preventative maintenance for older homes, where service line failures are more likely.
The third plan would be for the council to accept responsibility for repairing lines in the public right of way and outsourcing their repairs and maintenance to an outside company. That plan, which is heavily contingent on company costs of service, was estimated at $360,000 a year for the city.
The city said the recurring maintenance in all of those plans would require sewer rate increases for all Killeen ratepayers, with increases estimated between 1.1 and 2.2 percent.
An option some council members have floated is to offer repairs on a case-by-case basis, but city staff remain wary that such an approach would be difficult to formalize by ordinance.
In an email to Councilman Steve Harris in August, Director of Public Works David Olson warned of the pitfalls in the case-by-case approach.
“It is not possible at this time to estimate the cost of a case by case basis because we have not discussed the constraints that would allow for it to be repaired by the city vs. the owner,” Olson said. “I would caution you that the case by case basis is a slippery slope that allows for inconsistencies in the result of each case. In the previous presentation it was suggested that any new cost incurred should be accompanied by an appropriate rate increase.”
Continuing to grow a “contingency” fund for repairs on a discretionary basis would also require more heavy-lifting from the water-sewer fund, which is in stable health but is also a source of funding for two outside agencies: the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce and the Killeen Economic Development Corporation.
The council agreed Tuesday to allocate about $700,000 per year to both bodies, pulling from the water-sewer and general funds.
Other cities’ solutions
One of the major problems with determining how much control the city will take on service-line repairs is a lack of research on how other Texas cities manage this problem.
“With hundreds of cities in Texas, we cannot say how common it is (to not pay for repairs),” Shine said. “As part of our research, we are looking at other cities to determine services offered and related costs.”
For cities directly neighboring Killeen, the policy is much the same — with some caveats.
Harker Heights Public Works Director Mark Hyde said the city adopted a similar policy to Killeen’s but will offer aid to homeowners in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“For example, a service line may connect to a sewer main that is very deep which would require specialized equipment, knowledge and crews to repair,” Hyde said in an email Friday. “In these rare cases, the City maintains the ability to assist a property owner with that repair. These cases are certainly not common.”
In some cases, according to Herald research, Texas cities have taken some novel approaches to solving the problem.
In Bryan, just north of College Station, homeowners with service-line repair needs can apply for the city’s Private Sewer Lateral Assessment Program, which offers 3 percent interest rate loans for up to $7,000 in aid.
To qualify for the program, homeowners must be Bryan residents and be “in good standing” with the city public works department.
Other cities point homeowners to a collaborative program between the National League of Cities, which represents more than 19,000 municipalities in the U.S., and Service Line Warranties of America to provide insurance for sewer and water service line relocation and repair at a monthly premium.
Myles Meehan, spokesman for Service Line Warranties and Home Serve USA, said 35 Texas cities currently participate in the national program, which was started in 2010.
“Generally in all cities and towns across the U.S, it is the homeowners responsibility to maintain and repair the service lines on their property that connect their homes to the city or utility systems,” Meehan said. “In fact, most homeowners are surprised to learn that they are responsible for the repair and the replacement of their broken, blocked or leaking service lines on their property.”
Meehan said cities like Killeen, where nearly 30 percent of homes are more than 39 years old and face an increased risk of service line failure, are facing a national trend of aging infrastructure and dwindling public funds to deal with the problem.
“Cities and towns across the country are dealing with aging infrastructure in the public right of way and the SLWA program helps local decision-makers tackle the rarely discussed problem of updating the portion of the community’s aging water and sewer infrastructure that isn’t publicly maintained,” Meehan said. “It is very difficult to determine when a pipe may fail ... (but) the threat of failure will be a growing concern for Killeen homeowners as many service pipes are functioning on borrowed time.”