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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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City Utility Acts On Sewer Bills, Fire Fee

Issue Date: May 14, 2014

Winter is over, but the problems that the deep freeze this year caused for the City of Peshtigo’s Water and Sewer utilities are not. Public Works Director George Cowell reported to the Water and Sewer Committee that he lifted the keep running request on May 7 and 8, but then on May 8 they found another 200 feet of frozen storm sewer causing problems at the end of Wood Street.

Other issues aired at the meeting on Tuesday, May 13 included completion of the wastewater treatment plant test lab, cross connection inspections, and some new information on state requirements for water and sewer improvement projects.

Chair Tom Gryzwa reported the people doing cross connection inspections are doing an excellent job of dealing with property owners and advising them what to do if their systems do not have the proper back flow protection devices. Cowell noted there are two types of back flow preventers for outside faucets, but only one is designed for the climate here. It allows water to drain out completely when shut off. the other traps water inside, and then freezes and breaks when winter cold sets in.

Two property owners - Jeff Peters and Ryan Larsh - sought relief from high sewer charges on their first quarter bills resulting from water line problems. The Peters request was approved by unanimous committee vote, and the Larsh request was tabled for more information because the volume of water that apparently leaked out exceeded the capacity of the basement it was pumped from. Assistant Clerk/Treasurer Anita Morois explained how City Hall computes the volume of a leak - which involves comparing the meter read from the problem period with averages from the previous eight quarters.

Peters explained near the end of January he called a serviceman to fix a zone valve under an apartment he owns. The valve was fixed, but the worker left the it turned on, with water running into the crawl space into the ground under the apartment. No one noticed for some time.

He said he received a huge bill, and requested credit for $407.12 that was charged for water that ran into the ground and not into the sewer system. The water bill too was high, but since it actually was used he did not request credit for that.

I assume the heating guy is going to pay for the whole thing, Committee Member Fred Meintz commented at the start of the discussion. He also wondered how much insurance might pay, and said he did not want Peters collecting twice.

Gryzwa explained an owner only gets the credit once for an address. What you collect from your contractor is up to you, but the sewer wasn’t used, and we never give water bill credit.

Peters was present to explain his problem, and committee vote was unanimous in favor of that reimbursement.

The leak on the Larsh property resulted from a frozen water line break under a vacant home on Front Street that went undiscovered for two days. The sewer drain in the basement was also frozen, and eventually, after the basement filled up, a neighbor spotted water running out from under the building. It was pumped out by Matt Michalski, and probably eventually went into the storm sewer system.

Morois said the computations showed excess water use of 151,000 gallons, resulting in an excess sewer charge of $768.11.

Morois said there will be another request from a property owner in the same area, but the request was not received in time to get on the day’s agenda.

Seymour questioned the volume needed to hold 151,000 gallons of water, and Cowell said they could not get that much water in a basement. Cowell and Seymour did some math and determined that a 1,000 square foot basement with 9 foot ceilings would hold only 67,000 gallons. They wondered if part of the volume went into the floor drain before the sewer froze, but Gryzwa pointed out that in theory, the drain should not have frozen after the water was running.

Morois said the basement apparently connects to a crawl space, and wondered if part of the water had exited there. She said there was a problem last year under the other apartment in the same building, and it was discovered at that time that water was going into the crawl space and then out.

Cowell said he couldn’t support giving credit for that amount of water and proposed postponing a response until they get more information. That volume is too large! he declared.

The committee asked Cowell to check with Larsh and Michalski to determine how much water was actually pumped out, and where other excess water could have gone. Cowell wondered how that much water even ran through the meter. At 50 gallons a minute through a one inch pipe you couldn’t get that much water in two days, he declared.

Since they had no other option, the committee agreed to write off an unpaid $3,239.74 water and sewer bill for the old Peshtigo Motel building. The property was sold at sheriff’s auction after going through foreclosure and the city was notified by Marinette County that there wasn’t enough money generated to pay the back taxes and the bills.

Seymour wondered how a water and sewer bill was ever allowed to get that high without being shut off.

Morois explained the water has been shut off for a long time, but charges keep accumulating because of the Public Fire Protection fee that is assessed against each property with a water meter. The charges are based on meter size and this building has a 2 meter. The charge was for the meter, but there was no water use, she explained.

Meintz said property owners should be notified when the water is shut off that they will continue running up bills unless the meter is taken off. That huge a bill when water is not being used...There’s something wrong there!

Gryzwa said the person who bought the property now also isn’t paying. He suggested he should be notified that charges are accruing even though the water is shut off. Morois said he was told,but Meintz felt that information should always be put in writing, to leave a paper trail for the protection of everyone.

Gryzwa suggested he should be sent a letter advising that the account is already in arrears, and the only way to stop or reduce the charges is to remove or change the meter. Cowell said he cannot educe the meter size without changing the plumbing. What he should do would apparently depend on whether he intends to use the property for a motel or apartment building in future, or perhaps there is some other use in mind.

That led to a brief discussion on when and how the Public Fire Protection charge began appearing on water and sewer bills instead of being paid through the city’s property tax levy.

Morois said the amount to be collected is set by Wisconsin Public Service Commission, but it can be paid through property tax levy, special assessments, or water/sewer fees.

Meintz said the change was made about eight years ago, and at that time the city picked up an additional $260,000 a year in revenue and never reduced the property taxes.

Morois noted Public Fire Protection fee, to be paid to the water utility, formerly was a line item on the fire department’s annual budget. It pays for hydrants and water used for fighting fires, and the meter volume charged for has nothing to do with actual protection of the individual property.

Morois said several property owners in the city refuse to pay the fee, and eventually it gets put on their property tax bill as a special assessment.

Mayor Cathi Malke agreed. She knows of about 55 properties in the city that do not have city water service but get assessed the fee.

Meintz repeated they need to have a policy that requires notifying property owners with water shut off that the Fire Protection Fee will continue to be assessed.

Gryzwa suggested that the city building inspector should also get involved with the old motel property. He said the building is rapidly deteriorating, and if the new owner has no plans to improve it he should tear it down.

Payments are coming in now on the $1,788 due for sewer work done on the Dumke Forest Products property.

Cowell reported water main flushing has begun for the season, and will be done every Thursday night for several weeks from 9 p.m. to the early morning hours on Friday from the west side of French Street to Railroad Street and the river to the west city limits. In fall the north quarter of the city on the west side of the river will be done.

Because of the large amounts of overtime worked due to winter freezeups, Cowell said 2-man crews are doing the flushing instead of the three people that did it last year, but it is going well.

We know we’re going to get some red water, Cowell said, adding that will be particularly true in areas of Brown and Peck avenues. Residents in the flushing areas should let their water run a bit on Friday mornings before doing anything like laundry.

Cowell reported work is nearly done on the new lab at the wastewater treatment plant. Tests have been done, and on Tuesday, June 3, the state is coming in to the certification audit. A lot of work has gone into getting us to this point, but now we’re there! Cowell declared. He said once the lab is certified they will be able to do all the tests in-house except a seasonal one that will be done weekly throughout the summer by an outside firm.

The sink faucets and restrooms are functional, and the eye wash station will be operating before the inspection. Problems remain. They need a wall-the air condition to maintain the required 70 degree temperature, and the entire roof of the building may need to be replaced in the near future.

Some major issues were found when they tested the generator at the main lift station at full power, Cowell reported. But there was a bright side. He found maintenance manuals and parts, and he believes they can fix it in-house. They also found prints and manuals for all the machines dating from about 1971. Cowell said. he will see if Fabco has a backup generator the city can rent to use as backup while the existing generator is being repaired. Should there be a power outage at the main lift station it wouldn’t be long before sewers started backing up, he said. However, they need two pumps only when BPM, Inc. is running its big machine, Cowell said, so if there’s a problem they could be asked to shut that down.

Cowell, Tom Termatt of the public works crew and Richard Sparks of the wastewater treatment plant recently attended a day-long confined space training put on by Rural Water at Oconto Falls. They learned that some of the city’s equipment is improper, out of date or nonexistent. He said among things needed are guard rails to put around manholes when they are open, covers to go over them so nothing falls on the had of the person working inside, and a new tripod and hoist.

We cannot go into manholes until we get these things, Cowell declared. He said some of the present equipment that no longer meets confined space requirements can be put to reuse by the fire department.

Cowell mentioned other problems with equipment in the water and sewer departments, and Gryzwa suggested they should put together a cleaning and maintenance plan so they don’t lose track of things that need to be done.


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Peshtigo, WI 54157
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