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Lakewood toughens stance on sewer fee

Post by Christian Hill / The News Tribune on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am with No Comments »
April 8, 2013 11:34 pm

Lakewood city officials intend to initiate foreclosure proceedings against the owners of four apartment complexes for failure to pay a required sewer fee.

In spending $18 million to extend sewer service to Tillicum and Woodbrook, the city’s two poorest neighborhoods, the City Council in 2011 gave property owners five years to connect but required they pay a monthly “availability fee” if they chose to wait.

 The approach gave leniency to property owners who couldn’t afford the cost to connect immediately and revenue to the city to maintain the new sewer pipes. Too few property owners have connected for normal operation of the sewer so the pipes need to be flushed with water periodically to prevent odor and other problems.

 About one-third of the accounts — 106 of 375 total accounts — the city tracks are delinquent for failure to pay the fee after more than 30 days. That’s when the city has been slapping liens on the properties to try to force payment.

Delinquent fees total $76,689 as of April 1. The city has collected almost a quarter-million dollars in fees so far.

 Nearly $72,000 of the delinquent fees can be traced to the owners of four apartment complexes.

Public Works Director Don Wickstrom told the City Council during a Tuesday study session that reminders have drawn no response so more aggressive action is needed. Foreclosing on the properties should be the wake-up call the property owners need to demonstrate the city is serious about payment of the fees, he told the council.

“Our concern is if we do nothing we give the opposite message,” Wickstrom said.

Properties also must connect immediately to the sewer early if they are sold. Two of the 10 properties that have sold have failed to connect after three months, according to a staff report.

The city has the ability to compel connection, and Wickstrom said they will begin that process with the hope city action will persuade the property owners to finish it.

So far, 89 of the 363 properties that can connect to sewer have or in the process doing so, according to city statistics. The rest are paying the monthly fee.

As of April 1, property owners who have connected or are in the process of doing so represent 189 so-called “residential equivalent units.” An REU is 220 gallons a day. That’s short of the minimum usage needed to run the sewer normally.

The city contracts with Pierce County to flush and maintain the sewer system until normal operations can begin. The cost is average about $500 a month and is paid from the collected fees.

Desiree Winkler, another public works official working on the project, said residents continue to contact the city to get more information about hooking up.

“Things are moving along,” she said.

Sewer connections were available in the Tillicum neighborhood in October 2011. Woodbrook residents could begin hooking up four months later. The monthly fee for a single-family home this year is $47.32.

The city estimates it cost between $4,700 and $13,700 for a single family home, duplex or triplex to connect; it’s more expensive for apartment complexes and commercial buildings to connect. The city is making loans available to help property owners who otherwise couldn’t afford to hook up.

Sewer customers throughout Lakewood are paying for part of the sewer project through a surcharge on their utility bills, adopted in 2004, of about $1 a month for residents, more for commercial users. Lakewood also used city money and federal grants.

The aim of the sewer project was to revitalize the neighborhoods through economic redevelopment and to prevent environmental contamination, especially to American Lake, due to failing septic systems.

You’re invited to follow Christian Hill on Twitter @TNTchill.

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