Columbia homeowners on antiquated private sewer lines await city action

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:10 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Alan Toigo displays the drain where water collected in his home after a neighbor's sewage line, which connects to his as part of a private common collector system, backed up last year.

COLUMBIA — If your sewer line is part of a private common collector system, watch out.

When Alan Toigo's neighbor "snaked" his sewer line last fall, Toigo's bathroom and a quarter of his basement ended up with raw sewage 6 inches deep, he said.


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Toigo and his wife, Stephanie, bought their house at 1416 Shannon Place in the Fourth Ward two and a half years ago. The home, fully inspected and insured, was an investment in their future, Alan Toigo said.

Then came the sewer mishap, and their investment became a nightmare.

"From the toilet came a geyser of poop," Toigo said.

After the incident, Toigo immediately called the city and through the Public Works Department met Nathan Runyan, an engineering specialist. Runyan explained to the Toigos that they are responsible for their own private sewer line.

The Toigos' home was built in the 1950s. Steve Hunt, environmental services manager, explained that before the 1960s it was acceptable to build private common collectors, in which one private sewer line can be hooked to another before heading to the main public line.

Toigo isn't alone in his sewer suffering. Private common collectors have been a long-running problem in the city's older neighborhoods, and the Public Works Department has been trying to address it since before Hunt arrived 11 years ago.

The city set aside $2 million to eliminate private common collectors when voters approved a sewer bond issue in 2008. Under that program, the sewer utility pays to upgrade common collectors and link them to the city's main line.

Six projects encompassing 93 lots have been completed to date, and nine projects encompassing 242 lots are under way. Another 10 involving 100 lots are in line for work, Hunt said.

But of the $2 million allocated, $1.7 million already has been spent. The sewer utility estimates it will need more than $1.4 million to finish the projects it has begun and those in the queue, according to a spreadsheet on its website.

Those who have problems with private lines in common collectors must submit a petition to the city to get the problem fixed, Hunt said.

It has been 11 months since Toigo filed his petition, and he and his wife have been putting off remodeling their basement for fear of another "geyser." Runyan told Toigo earlier this fall that it might be another year before the city can start the process by calling an interested parties meeting and then it would be some time before construction would actually begin. He encouraged Toigo to lobby his city councilman if he wants his house addressed sooner, Toigo said.

Toigo, however, has yet to contact his councilman, Daryl Dudley, and said he feels the situation is hopeless. He doesn't have the $9,000 it would take to fix the problem, and he doesn't want to sue the person who sold him the house. Selling the house would require him to disclose the sewage problem.

Elsewhere, the city is making progress. The City Council recently authorized reconstruction of a private common collector that serves two lots on Hunt Court. That will cost about $42,000, which includes $7,000 for design and $35,000 for construction, according to a memo from Public Works Director John Glascock. Construction should begin in the spring, almost three years after the residents first petitioned the city for help.

Former Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade also encourages people with sewer problems to contact their council person. "It should be the responsibility of the council person to aggressively make funds available for the projects," he said.

Dudley, Wade's successor on the council, said that residents are using the petition process and that he has heard from no one about sewer problems.

A petition has a better chance of winning the council's approval if all the residents on the common collector agree to give the city easements, Hunt said. 

Both Dudley and Hunt said there is no money in the fiscal 2011 operating budget for eliminating private common collectors. Dudley said that there are no plans to reallocate any of the $77 million in bond proceeds but that the council and sewer utility will consider how to deal with problems as they come up.

Hunt said he knows which projects are in the queue, but beyond that, "it is unknown as to how many more (private common collector) sewers are remaining to be replaced."

The sewer utility used to cover only half the cost of reconstructing a lot's common collector, and the resident paid the remaining half through tax billing, Hunt said. The City Council found that it was cheaper to have the sewer utility pay the cost than to deal with the contentious tax billing process, Wade said.

The utility does, however, want people to offer easements. "We will focus where people want us there and are willing to work with us," Hunt said.

Now that the sewer utility pays the full cost of reconstruction, more people are working with their neighbors and collaborating. That means the money is drying up more quickly, Wade said.

Dudley said common collectors are a big priority for the city and that the sewer utility is doing what they can.

"(The sewer utility) hired two engineers to work on it 100 percent of the time," Dudley noted.

Wade agreed that the program in place is good, but "I think it needs to be a higher priority with more money allocated," he said.

"The question of money essentially becomes a council question," Wade said.

Besides the risks involved in raw sewage flooding a person's basement or bathroom, there are serious health hazards when raw sewage seeps up through the ground, Wade said. This has happened before and been corrected, but it will happen again if nothing is done, Wade said.

Hunt said the city to some extent has to rely on residents to report the problems. He recalled an incident where raw sewage had been overflowing for weeks from a common collector manhole. When someone finally discovered and reported it,  the city was able to fix it. The problem, though, is that homeowners often don't know where their private lines are.

"We don't have them mapped," Hunt said. Unless the common collector pipes are backed up in someone's basement or nearby woods, the overflow can go unnoticed.

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Eric Cox November 23, 2010 | 10:10 a.m.

Yeah it's a bad deal but why should the taxpayers get stuck with the bill? I live on Greenwood in a home built well before the 60's myself and had a similar problem. The fist estimate I got for repairs was $8,000 by the time I had 4 or 5 they ranged from $5,000 to $13,000. It was my understanding that the property owner is responsible for the sewer line up to the main. Would I have rather spent the money on new windows or having the floors refinished, of course but not having raw sewage in my basement trumped the desire for new windows. This problem would have been discoverable to the buyer with a camera inspection of the line.

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John Schultz November 23, 2010 | 10:43 a.m.

I live in a county subdivision and several of my neighbors (luckily not me) had substandard septic tanks that were leaking onto other's property. DNR told them that they needed to hook up to county sewer when it became available. The Boone County Regional Sewer District offered a plan that we deemed too expensive, and ended up going with a private contractor. Yes, it cost us some money money and we now have to pay monthly fees to the sewer district, but at least the tanks are no longer in use. You don't always have to rely on government to get things done.

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