Milwaukee lead pipe removal plan delayed

Common Council holds proposal to begin replacement for 75,000 homes until next meeting

A plan to begin replacing roughly 75,000 lead pipes in Milwaukee’s older homes and mandating owners to pay a portion of the cost has been put on hold.

The Common Council debated the cost-sharing plan, included in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s 2017 budget, Tuesday and ultimately voted 8-7 to hold the measure to the next meeting, with some aldermen saying their constituents did not understand issue.

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“We understand what’s going on, but I can guarantee you if you ask your neighbor what is being proposed, they do not,” said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis.

Milwaukee is one of several cities across the country dealing with lead pipes because of its older housing stock. About 44 percent of the city’s homes were built before 1951, and have lead pipe laterals, meaning that the pipes leading from the main water lines to 74,600 homes contain traces of lead.

Under Barrett’s proposal, when leaks or failures are discovered on privately-owned lines, the homeowner would cover one-third of the cost to replace the line, and the city would pay for two-thirds of the cost. This replacement would be mandatory. It currently is not.

The city owns the lateral from the water main to the property line and the property owner is responsible for the section of the lateral between the property line and the residence.

Currently, if the portion of the pipe that the property owner owns fails, leaks or is damaged it is up to the homeowner to fix it, costing on average $5,000.

Often times, when there is a leak or damage on the homeowners side, the owner chooses to patch it, rather than replace it, which actually spikes the lead levels, said Alderman James Bohl who chaired Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force.

“I am not happy about this, but you can’t just vote an easy ‘no’ unless you have something else as an alternative,” Bohl said. “This bill mandates (pipe replacement), but it also incentivizes it. We can run around and avoid it by putting our tail between our legs, but someone has to do the right thing.”

Alderwoman Milele Coggs originally wanted to send the measure back to committee but ultimately voted against that and made the motion to hold it at the Common Council, which was approved.

“My choice is to vote against this,” she said Tuesday. “It’s less about whether this is the right avenue and more about the level of transparency. Whatever we do impacts 70,000 households. We need clarification, and to get answers.”

Coggs, who chairs the Finance Committee, did not vote on the proposal when it was at committee and passed 4-0.

The portion of the city east of Wauwatosa and the Bay View neighborhood have the largest numbers of residential properties with lead pipe lateral lines. The two districts account for more than a quarter of properties with lead pipes.

The median year the properties were built is 1921 and the median total property assessment is $76,800. Approximately 62.6 percent of residential properties with lead service lines are owner occupied.

The state Department of Natural Resources has pledged $2.6 million to help fund Milwaukee lead lateral replacement efforts. The city has said its first priority is replacing pipes in the 385 state-licensed day care centers.

“The people here who are saying they are fighting for the homeowner, now when they need their pipes replaced they pay the whole thing. This says we pay two-thirds,” said Alderman Nik Kovac. “We need to get the facts straight – much of the noise in the community has been caused by Flint, none of that has happened in Milwaukee. The amount of the lead in our water is between zero and negligible.”

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