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Whose line is it anyway? Citizens want more transparency with the future of Lubbock's plumbing

Samantha Larned
Ad hoc committee chair Jeff Reese (right) said he wants to ensure that all members make a well-informed decision and that the city's future steps are well communicated to the public.

Citizens are bringing their concerns to meetings of the ad hoc committee formed by Lubbock’s city council in April. The committee is tasked with addressing whether property owners or the city are responsible for maintaining and paying for sanitary sewer lateral lines that fall into disrepair.

One such citizen is Leann Lamb-Vines, a resident living in central Lubbock, who gave her public comment at the committee’s meeting Wednesday.

“When this issue came before us, one of the media stories highlighted a woman who had been presented a bill of close to $15,000 for repairs,” she said.

Until 2006, property owners were responsible for repairs to the lateral sewer line that runs from their structure to the city’s sewer main. This line usually connects underneath a vehicle right-of-way, such as the street or alley, beyond the owner’s property line.

“I inquired with my local plumber who has been in the business since before then, regarding that change,” Lamb-Vines said. “He informed me that the change was necessary because the plumbers often made mistakes that caused the alley lateral lines to be damaged and needing repair.”

After 2006, it remained the city’s responsibility until October of 2023, when City Manager Jarrett Atkinson told the city council that amending the ordinance to change repairs from city crews to city-approved private contractors would serve a “benefit to the consumer” by lowering response time, as well as saving the city $800,000 a year. The amendment also intended to open time for limited city crews to respond to other maintenance needs. The amendment was unanimously approved by the city council.

Lamb-Vines said the nature of the decision from the city left her feeling “uneasy.”

Another Lubbockite, Jo Conatser, told the committee that homeowners didn’t know about the change and many purchased their properties under the impression that repairs in the alley right-of-way were the city's responsibility. She felt like the change was made without proper communication.

“We have a lack of transparency because this change happened without people knowing about it,” Conatser said. “And that, I feel, is very, very unfortunate.”

On April 9, the city council voted again to amend and revert the ordinance and return requests for repairs on the sewer lateral line to the city’s water utility department.

A citizen committee was also created, with a member of each district appointed by city council representatives and four plumbing professionals assigned to dig deeper into the issue and make recommendations to the city council.

After the group’s fifth meeting on Wednesday, committee chair Jeff Reese said the issue is still more complicated than some have expressed. Reese said the committee has so far outlined needs for the property owners and needs for the city, trying to find common ground.

“It's not as cut and dry as even we would like to think, certainly not as cut and dry as somebody just hearing part of the story,” Reese said. “There's a lot of things involved in protecting all the stakeholders that we've identified.”

According to Reese, the committee is struggling to ensure all its members are well informed so that they don’t make assumptions, something that takes time, along with ensuring the final recommendation is well communicated to the public.

“I don't think [the city] handled the communication and transparency stuff well in the beginning,” Reese said. “Whatever recommendation we make has got to be steeped very heavily in transparency and communication. Because it's really easy to make assumptions otherwise.”

Having heard from the public and plumbers since the committee formed, Reese said while not necessarily false, some of what has been said tends to focus on more emotional accounts from either side of the discussion, and separating those emotions from the facts has been difficult.

“Many times what makes the news or the social media feed is some outlier, $15,000 replacement. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's an outlier.” Reese said. “Also, [the claim] ‘I got it done for $1,000.’ That's not realistic.”

According to Reese, the middle ground cost has been placed between $3,500–$4,500; still a high expense for many Lubbock residents.

Much of what makes deferring maintenance to private plumbers a more time-efficient option is their specifically dedicated staff and updated equipment. Along with the intention that competing bids would bring prices down for homeowners.

District 4 committee member Justin Backus told the committee he felt responsibility for the costs should fall to the city to preserve integrity. And as citizens already pay the city, adding as much as $1 to each customer’s utility bill could cover much of the costs.

Assistant City Manager Erik Rejino responded that kind of addition to bills would only possibly cover manpower, not including equipment or fuel.

Chairman Reese described new equipment like a hydrovac that digs the hole around the sewer line with water so repairs can be made. This prevents heavier tools like mini-excavators from cutting through gas or fiber optic lines by mistake, but plumbers can ordinarily afford these new heavy tools better than the city.

“It's an expensive piece of equipment,” Reese said. “If it were just ‘grab a bunch of guys with shovels,’ it'd be a lot cheaper.”

If full responsibility for the cost of repairs does fall to the city, more money would be needed to update the Public Works Department staff and equipment to ensure other maintenance across the city doesn’t fall behind.

“Where's that come from? Raise taxes?” Reese asked. “Some people feel like ‘a little bit from me and a little bit from you,’ that makes sense. Some people feel like, ‘no, raising taxes is of the devil, and we're not going to do that.’ So it's just not clear cut.”

Reese said it only gets more complicated when you begin to break down the variety of property owners who can be affected and their individual needs and pressures, from homeowners of all incomes to local and franchise business properties.

“Should they take care of their own because they're a for-profit business? How do you feel about churches and nonprofits?” Reese asked. “How do you feel about a 90-year-old lady who lives by herself on a fixed income versus the guy from a $5 million house?”

Early tentative plans proposed in Wednesday’s meeting broke down the possibility of more “hybrid” models that would share costs between the city and plumbers.

They discussed considerations like triaging subsidies and response times based on emergency needs; providing the cost benefits from city crews for those with lower incomes and less urgent sewer issues, which can withstand the delay in service; and the option to contract with private plumbers for those who can afford it.

The committee still has four meetings left to develop recommendations before presenting them to the city council, but Reese said if portions of the group still feel uneasy about the plan, he’s not afraid to ask the city for a little more time to make the right decision.

Still, Reese said the city reached this point because of poor communication and transparency with the public regarding changes to their sewer system bills, and any recommendation, with or without increases, will need to take that into consideration.

“It's not going to do us any good if we just checked off, ‘yeah, we met the deadline,’” Reese said. “We are making a recommendation that's a good recommendation.”

Public Works Director Wood Franklin acknowledged many of the sentiments from Wednesday’s meeting, including where the public may not have been made aware of changes for lateral sewer line repair costs and maintenance.

Franklin said that despite back-and-forth from the city council and confusion among residents, the answer to who owns the private sewer lateral line has never changed. The publicly owned sewer main line runs parallel with the alley, while the privately owned lateral line runs perpendicular, connecting structures on the property to the main line under the alley.

“Just because they own it doesn't mean that they're responsible to maintain it, because it's in the public right-of-way,” Franklin said. “There's electrical lines, there's gas lines, there's other things that are out there. All the franchise utilities, telecommunications; and so while it may be your ownership, like right now, the city council adopted an ordinance where the city maintains that line if it needs to be dug up and taken care of.”

Franklin said around 1% of Lubbock’s lateral sewer lines are replaced or repaired each year.

“The big question at hand is– why should you and me pay for this third party, his sewer line, to be replaced through the ratepayers? Everybody's paying for the 1% that gets replaced every year. Is that fair?” Franklin asked. “In the Council right now that's where we are, that's what we're doing. They asked this committee to look at it a little further, go back, and see if there's a better way to do it.”

From other cities across Texas, Franklin outlined how they have determined to approach this dilemma, with the majority of communities placing responsibility on the property owner, but Franklin added that little things still make each city’s system distinct.

“While this is good information to have, just because another city does it one way doesn't mean that's what we should do here in Lubbock because we may do things differently,” Franklin said.

According to Franklin, the initial change from a city staff crew maintaining repairs came up because crews were spending 50% of their time on repairing sewer lateral lines, falling behind or deferring other pipeline maintenance like public safety needs in fire hydrant repairs.

“Just the general maintenance of our [plumbing] system has been, I guess forgotten, has been deferred because we're doing the private sewer lateral lines,” Franklin said.

Lubbock’s city government is quickly approaching budget discussions ahead of the new fiscal year, with the city council outlining and adopting the next round of financial needs for the city in September, but Franklin said there’s time to make changes in the Public Works Department’s financial plan, depending on what the committee recommends.

“There's still time to include it in this year's budget if it's able to be put in there because obviously, if it's a big change and it changes the rates, we've got to work the models,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to see how that works and how much it does change the rates.”

If all moves forward as planned, after the citizen’s committee recommendations, the next steps will likely still be one of the first major policy decisions for a new mayor and city council after the results from the 2024 municipal runoff elections on June 15. Franklin referred to the future council’s responsibility as a “daunting task,” but applying whatever these solutions may be will inevitably take some time.

“Even if we were to get money right now to buy a new crew, I’ve got to order that and get vehicles,” Franklin said. “That takes six months, and eight months or a year sometimes to get heavy equipment. So it's not something that will change with the council making a decision at a city council meeting. It's not immediate.”

Franklin added that the biggest compliment he could give this committee is that “they are looking at it in depth, they're taking it seriously, and they want to give the right recommendation.”

The committee's next public meeting will be on Wednesday, June 12, at 11 a.m., at Citizen’s Tower.

The current deadline for the recommendations to be presented to the city council is July 9.

Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.