City to water customers: It’s your duty (and cost) to repair leaking service lines

Missoula Water customers agree to maintain and repair their service lines when they sign up for water, though the city is looking to make that clear in a new ordinance. It would also give the city the authority to do the repairs and pass on costs when the customer neglects the work.

Current city rules don’t clearly state that property owners connected to Missoula Water are responsible for maintaining – and repairing if needed – their service lines, regardless of how far they might extend.

Now the city is looking to change that.

Members of the Public Works Committee on Wednesday got their first look at a proposed ordinance clarifying that property owners have a duty to repair their water lines when those lines begin to leak.

The ordinance would also give the city the authority to fix leaking lines if the problem isn’t addressed, and it could then add outstanding repair costs to a property owner’s water bill.

A parallel ordinance would establish a temporary loan program easing a property owner’s cost of service line repairs.

“We already had it in the budget,” said Dennis Bowman, deputy director of Public Works. “It will be done through the billing system.”

As proposed, a property owner would select a contractor to repair a line and the city would cover the upfront costs. It would then add that cost to the owner’s water bill, with the customer determining how long he or she needed to pay it off.

The interest rate is around 3.9 percent and any Missoula Water customer could use it on a first-come first-serve basis, Bowman said. Funding would come from the city’s Enterprise Fund.

“This is really a big benefit for the customers,” Bowman said. “We’ve gone out in the past and told customers their service line is leaking and they have to fix it, but they don’t have the money. This gives them that additional relief.”

As stated by one council member, the current agreement between a water customer and the city is little more than a “gentleman’s agreement.” But the city is pushing to change that and place that agreement in ordinance.

Customers enter into a contract with the city when signing up for water. That contract states that property owners are required to maintain the service line and shutoff valve from the house to the water main, regardless of where the main is located.

“The service line is owned by the property owner where it’s connected to the water main, whether the water main is in the street and easement or the alley,” Bowman said. “The city only owns the water main. From that point on, it’s the property owner.”

But in some cases, the water main could run a long distance. In areas of East Missoula, some service lines run nearly three blocks. In another neighborhood, the service lines cross under Reserve Street.

Still, Bowman said, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to maintain and repair those lines. That didn’t sit well with some council members, who came to Wednesday’s hearing expecting a “more robust conversation” around the issue.

“If we make this an ordinance, then it carries force of law,” said council member John DiBari. “If that person had to tunnel under Reserve Street, that would be a pretty hefty bill. I’m not saying Missoula Water should bear all that cost, but if we pass an ordinance, they’re required by law to do it. I’m not sure that feels great.”

Council member Jordan Hess said the chance to discuss the ownership of service lines and some of the broader questions that surround it would come in the months ahead.

Missoula Water and Public Works will bring forward recommendations in a facilities plan at a later time. The plan will explore other options, such as transferring ownership to the city if it has to replace a service line.

While property owners are responsible for service lines in most cities, that responsibility often stops at the property line. That too could be explored, though costs will play a factor in any future decision.

“I think there’s still a lot of intent to look at those policies,” Hess said. “But nothing is changing here. We’re just taking current practice and making that conform from a private owner and a private agreement into ordinance format.”

Bowman said as many as 30 property owners a year knowingly neglect repairs to their water line, even when the problem is brought up by Missoula Water. In some cases, renters have had feeble water pressure, but the landlord wasn’t willing to address the leak in the system.

Bowman added that one property owner last summer neglected a known leak for nearly five months. The new ordinance would give the city the ability to fix the problem if the owner won’t and pass on the costs to the property owner.

“There was gray area looking at the ordinance that didn’t spell out that we had the authority to do that, even though it was wasting water and creating a hazard in the street,” Bowman said. “It was a gray area and that’s why we wanted it amended.”