Winonans who can prove that their utility lines froze and that they have used more water than normal by running water to prevent refreezing are now eligible for a utility bill reduction of up to $140. Last Tuesday, the Winona City Council approved the last-minute proposal by city staff, which was added to the agenda just two and a half hours before the meeting. After months of bitter cold, frost across the region has reached historic depths, deep enough to the freeze water lines of many area homes under yards and in the ground beneath city streets. The new utility reduction is intended to provide relief for the extra cost of running water to prevent refreezing. City Council members Al Thurley and Gerry Krage pushed for the city to consider helping residents who ran water in successful attempts to keep their pipes from freezing.
However, under the proposal, only property owners and renters who can prove that their utility lines froze between January and March of this year, by providing a receipt from plumbing or welding companies hired to thaw the pipes, are eligible. Additionally, city staff will inspect the water usage rates of residents who request the reduction to verify that the residents' water usage has actually increased significantly compared to last year. Residents whose pipes froze inside their homes are not eligible, only those whose service lines froze, that is, the line connecting their house to the water and sewer mains.
Public Works Director Keith Nelson said that as of last Tuesday, 90 properties had reported frozen service lines, though the true number was probably far higher. His office projected that as many as 200 residents might seek the credit, costing the city $28,000 in lost revenue.
Many local homeowners are running water to prevent freezing; thawing below-ground pipes can cost hundreds of dollars or more. However, homeowners whose pipes have not frozen are not eligible for the water bill reduction. Some other cities in the region, such as Goodview, are offering utility credits to all residents who request them.
"I think this is a good start," said Krage. "At first blush, I thought this was like closing the barn door after the cows got out," but it will help residents whose problems incurred the most expense: paying for utility lines to be thawed or repaired.
Krage asked city staff to present options — and cost estimates — for ways residents who ran water to prevent freezing might be given a break from water costs. He mentioned ideas like giving them a smaller utility credit.
Krage pointed out that the city is recommending that all residents whose faucet temperatures fall within a few degrees of freezing run their water. "We're asking everyone to do that, not just after you had a problem," he noted. There is a reason the city does not want homeowners' service lines to freeze: because the city does not want homeowners to be forced to dig up city streets if lines burst and have to be replaced, Krage explained.
Replacing water lines and leaving behind patchwork streets "is a tremendous expense to the property owner, but it's also an expense to the city," Krage said. "It's a hardship for everybody who travels over the roads, and then you have maintenance issues with snowplows, et cetera, et cetera. So it is a benefit to the city to have the fewest number of these possible." The question is how much should the city spend on encouraging property owners to prevent freezing, Krage stated. "Millions of dollars? Absolutely not. But this isn't something that just affects the property owner; it's something that affects the neighborhood. It affects the whole city," he said.
Thurley called the proposal "a good starting point" and added "I obviously want city staff to continue monitoring the issue and we may have to modify [it]."
City Manager Judy Bodway responded to Krage's call for options to help other residents by saying, "We at the staff level spent a significant amount of time trying to come up with a proposal that we thought made sense and helped the people who had the most significant problem." She pointed out that if every property owner in the city were to be offered a $140 credit and take advantage of it, it could cost the city over a million dollars in lost revenue.
The city has significantly raised sewer and water fees in recent years. Financial advisors hired by the city have noted that the increased revenue from user fees has made the city more financially robust.
"There's been a lot of discussion on this in the last few days," Krage said of freezing service lines. "One thing I want to remind everybody: reduction of water bills with this council…it's hard to get done because in almost every case it's because of human error." As opposed to cases where tenants left the bathtub running, "this is a natural situation," he continued. "It's no different than if there were a storm and we're assisting people with something that has affected or could affect anybody." He added, "My point is anybody who then does get a break — this, or if there is any addition or whatever — it's because we're all in this together."
Property owners interested in the reduction must contact the Water Department at 457-8272. All requests for reductions must be made by April 1. City staff said that homeowners whose lines freeze should alert the Water Department immediately.