The “gentleman’s agreement” on paying for waterline repairs is now part of the city of Missoula’s ordinances, and comes with a loan program to help property owners cover the costs.
While the city owns and maintains the main water lines, typically running through the middle of a street, the property owners are responsible for the portion that runs from the main line to their homes. For years, people signing up for the water utility had a clause in their agreement that when those service lines start to leak, they would cover the repair costs. That includes items like shut-off valves.
But at times, city public works officials say they’ve had difficulty in forcing property owners to fulfill their portion of the agreement. In one case, an out-of-state property owner refused to fix a service line leak for more than four months, despite renters complaining about the lack of water pressure.
Dennis Bowman, Missoula's deputy public works director, notes that not only are the leaks a waste of water, they also can cause damage to the streets.
On Monday night, the city council unanimously adopted an ordinance requiring property owners to maintain their water service lines, which formalizes what Councilor John DiBari previously called a "gentleman's agreement."
"It's important that the public knows this isn't a change in policy, but a demarcation of responsibilities," said Councilor Bryan von Lossberg.
They also extended the time period from 10 to 21 days to allow for the work to begin, and Bowman vowed to work with property owners to help them find qualified contractors to do the work in a timely fashion. He added they won't come down hard on properties where it takes a longer time to fix.
Councilor Jesse Ramos wanted to extend to 30 days the window for people to notify the city that they were working on the leaks, but Bowman said the city likes to know about the problem as soon as possible so they can let others know it's being fixed.
Also on Monday, the council approved a plan under which the Missoula Water Division now will offer property owners low-interest loans — around 4 percent — to accomplish the repairs, which can be paid over time through the water bill. And if the property owner decides to ignore the problem, the public works department can make the repairs and charge the owner by adding the cost, usually between $3,000 and $6,000, to the water bill for a five-to-seven-year period.
A $6,000, a seven-year loan would add about $70 to a monthly water bill.
The money for the loans will come out of the public works’ enterprise fund initially, which earmarked about $200,000 for the work during this fiscal year. Eventually, as property owners repay the loans, it’s expected to become a stand-alone revolving loan program.
"This is one of the numerous examples of the benefits Missoula citizens are having because we can take the bold action to require this from our own water utility," said Councilor Stacie Anderson. "Previously, property owners had the responsibility ... but they were on their own (for financing the work). They're still responsible but can get a low-interest loan."
Because the homeowners need to repay the loans, there’s no cap on the amount they can borrow for the work.
Every year, anywhere from 25 to 30 properties have to replace their service lines and associated hardware, according to Bowman.
City council members previously voiced concerns about the cost of repairs being passed on to renters, but Councilor Gwen Jones noted at their Feb. 27 meeting they have no authority to interfere with the renter/landlord relationship.
The new ordinance is part of a larger planned service line overhaul the city council and staff will consider in the upcoming months, Bowman noted.
The move comes on the heels of the city of Missoula purchasing the former Mountain Water utility in 2017; it’s now called Missoula Water. An engineering study undertaken as part of a lawsuit involving the utility estimates liabilities of up to $30 million involving the service lines.