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Seeking Sinkhole Solution: County, City Leaders Working with SD1

Across the City of Covington there are approximately 42 sinkholes related to breaks in sewer pipes underneath the roadways.

If such a pipe breaks and it is determined that the pipe belongs to a private homeowner, that homeowner could be forced to fork over anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000. As some property owners find themselves facing this costly hardship or as some of the sinkholes emerge at abandoned properties, the City is relegated to merely covering the sinkholes with metal plates.

Also, the city is now out of metal plates.

"The problem we have is, we don't have the ability to force property owners to fix anything. If they don't have the means to fix them, those sinkholes just say there," said Mike Yeager, Covington's city engineer who gave a presentation to the Kenton County Mayors Group over the weekend. "The longer they sit there, the bigger the void can get."

While there are 42 sinkholes related to sewer pipe breaks, there are many more broken sewer laterals across the city, Yeager said. Sanitation District 1 owns and operates the public sewer lines that typically run down the middle of public streets while each home is connected to that main pipe by a separate pipe legally owned by the property owner. When the property owner's pipe breaks causing a sinkhole, the owner is responsible for repairs.'

In years past, there was a program through SD1 in which the utility took care of most or all of the repairs but that program was cut in a 2013 budget crunch. In 2014, SD1 put funds back into the budget to determine the cause of the sinkhole (something that also had been previously removed - occasionally resulting in costly work for nothing when a homeowner would find out that his or her sewer pipe had not broken) but the previous program has not been previously reinstituted. 

In Covington, Yeager said, the city at leats helps with road restoration following the repair of a broken pipe. 

"The city's stance is, it would be more beneficial for the sanitation district to take this over," Yeager said. "SD1 has the expertise to do this so there's not that time lapse where homeowners are having to get quotes. There are contractors already under contract. Their contractors are really good so we know the restoration will be really good and we know it will be resolved in a timely manner. Some have been out there for over a year."

SD1 executive director Dave Rager said that the sewer lateral repair policy at the utility was revised three times between 1995 and 2013, at one time involving a cost-sharing program or full restoration of private sewer laterals that run under the public right of way. SD1 averaged 75 repairs annually at a cost of $600,000 or so per year. The options, Rager told the mayors group, are to continue with the property owner being responsible, to restore the previous policy, to have local governments split the costs of repair, or SD1 could provide an insurance program."

Lakeside Park Mayor David Jansing said that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to SD1 taking on the responsibility. "If the money was there, obviously the greatest thing would be to go back to SD1 taking over issues underneath the public streets," Jansing said. Recently, a check arrived at the Lakeside Park city building, Jansing said, and it was from an insurance company that gives the city 50 cents for each sewer lateral policy it sold. "Doing some quick math, 175 residents signed up for that program and I have not heard one negative thing about it." Jansing, who said he learned of the program from the City of Edgewood, called the insurance "Plan B".

Most of the officials present, though, suggested that those who would purchase the insurance policy are probably people of means to not be so adversely affected by a sudden cost associated with a sewer lateral break. 

Rager said that the program could be fully restored if a dollar or less was placed on all the SD1 bills. "The challenge is, if we put a dollar on the bill, that's a new fee under state law," he said. "Any new fee has to be approved by two of the three (county judges-executive). It's a doable thing but the bar for getting it implemented would be a little higher." Rate increases are approved or disapproved annually by the judges-executive in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties.

At least one mayor said that a rate increase would be easier for taxpayers to swallow if it were tied to something specific like sewer lateral repairs.

"A lateral program needs to be reintroduced as SD1's responsibility," said Kenton County Judge-Executive Kris Knochelmann. 

Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman was concerned that there would never be a high enough participation rate in insurance policies to make much of an impact. "I'd be surprised if you ever got over 10 to 15% of residents to subscribe, so we're never going to solve this problem," he said. "It becomes, for a variety of reasons, more immediate than a code violation."

In Louisville, where an insurance policy has been available for approximately eight years, the participation rate is at about 35%.

The mayors group will consider a resolution at its April meeting that would be in support of affixing a charge to SD1 bills to restore the sewer lateral program.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News