Case of Centerfield sewer line break

shows complexities of local government

Nearly all city councils in Sanpete County want to do what seems right and fair. But as a situation that came up at the Centerfield City Council a couple of weeks ago demonstrated, doing so can be complicated.

In 2004, the city council adopted an ordinance saying that the city was financially responsible for main sewer lines going down the middle of streets.

But if a leak or break occurred on a lateral line going from the sewer main to a private property on the side of the street, the property owner was financially responsible, even if the break was located on city property.

Centerfield is not unique, Ephraim City, for one, has the same policy regarding lateral lines.

Recently, a break occurred right at the joint where the lateral connects to the main. The lateral serviced property owned by Roger Marshall, a well-like resident who has cancer. The city billed him $2,200 for the repair.

There have been allegations that installation of the sewer laterals years ago was a slip-shod job. Marshall wasn’t able to attend the city council meeting where his predicament was discussed. A neighbor spoke in his behalf. But in an interview, Marshall reported, “When we dug up the broken pipe, we found that whoever installed it didn’t even glue it to create a seal.”

Marshall can ill afford the $2,200 repair. The community has been raising money to help him with medical bills. To tab him with the cost of repair of a problem he in no way created seems almost callous.

But as Mayor Thomas Sorensen pointed out, rightly or wrongly, the ordinance currently on Centerfield’s books says property owners are responsible for laterals, period.

If the city approved a refund for Marshall, it could open Pandora ’s Box. Other property owners who have paid for repairs to portions of lateral lines that were located on city property anytime after 2004 could start asking for refunds. Who know how much that would cost the city?

Going forward, when other breaks occurred on city property, property owners could insist that the city fix them, because the city had done so for other owners. If the city said “no,” the property owners would have good grounds for a lawsuit.

Some council members wanted to give Marshall the refund. Such an action could have been justified as a gesture of compassion. But the mayor called for consulting with the city attorney first. “Let’s make sure we do this the right way,” the mayor said. Ultimately, the motion to give Marshall a refund was tabled.

In dealing with day-to-day issues such as a potential refund to Marshall, a city council must always keep the big picture in mind. Based on the memory of one of the mayors involved in installing the sewer system, it went in in the 1980s. It’s a given that a system in place for that long is going to start breaking down.

It is probably time for Centerfield to call in Sunrise Engineering, its consulting engineering firm, have the company evaluate the whole sewer system, and ask Sunrise to make recommendations for preventive maintenance or, potentially, replacement of parts of the system.

While not a perfectly fair solution, it might make sense for Centerfield to keep its existing ordinance on laterals in place for now. Once the sewer system is upgraded, and the potential for leaks and breaks has been minimized, the city can change its ordinance and take responsibility for portions of laterals that are on city property.

Adopting a new ordinance, of course, requires public notice for at least two weeks, followed by a public hearing, followed by a council vote.

The only plausible course would be to make the ordinance applicable to cases following adoption. Making the ordinance retroactive would create an administrative and financial hornet’s nest.

As we said, running a municipal government can be complicated.

We could understand why the city might want to refund the repair cost on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.