Local property owner asks City to waive over $7,000 in sewer fees, caused by water line leaks

Sewer bills are once again sparking some controversy between City Council and a St. Joseph property owner, after an emergency bill waiving $7,783 in sewer fees failed to pass Monday night.

Posted: Oct 22, 2019 6:54 PM
Updated: Oct 22, 2019 6:54 PM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) When local property owner Russel Hanson purchased the Countryside Mobile Home Estates in May 2017, he said it was a much different scene than it is today.

"A lot of squatters, a lot of problems," Hanson said. "A lot of the city officials like police and firefighters, gas utility companies, they couldn't stand it. Anytime they had to come in here they hated it, you know."

But, with some remodeling, renovations and new tenants, Hanson said the property has come a long way in a two-year span, much to the delight of local officials.

"Police, firemen, paramedics, utility personnel, they do nothing but commend us," Hanson said. "They are so happy that we've done what we've done here."

Hanson admits that when he purchased the property he was new to mobile home parks and didn't quite know what to fully expect. Not long after they bought the Estates, he said the sewer bills began climbing thanks to old, broken and leaky water lines.

"We realize [the water lines] are just old, really crappy stuff that's just poking up through the dirt. It's really fragile and if it gets disturbed it breaks and has a big leak and shoots water out," Hanson said. 

The leaks have caused Hanson's water bills to increase to almost four times the amount of the months without leaks.  Because of this, the property owner went before City Council Monday night requesting an emergency bill to waive $7,783.00 in sewer user fees. He said that amount covers the water that he believes isn't even going into the sewer system, but rather flowing out onto the ground.

"I don't even want to call it a credit or a waiver because it's an error," Hanson said. "It's an error in the billing for the fact that it's just billing based off our water usage and the water goes on the ground."

The council voted in favor of the bill in a five to four vote. Unfortunately, because it was an emergency bill, it failed, needing at least six 'yes' votes to pass.

Councilman PJ Novak expressed sympathy for Hanson's situation during the meeting on Monday night.

"I can understand he got into something he never dreamed he'd get into," Novak said. 

But, Councilman Russell Moore said he felt the $7,783 amount was an arbitrary number that couldn't be backed up with proof.

"There are no calculations that can get us to this number accurately," Moore said. 

Though Hanson disagreed, and said he has researched and gathered the data from the past two years he's owned the Estates. 

The property has already received two past sewer usage fee credits. Hanson said for the winter of 2017-2018 the credit was roughly $4,000, and it jumped up to nearly $9,000 for 2018-2019. He compared the sewer bill charge amount of the months the property saw leaks with the months without any to get the difference. 

Hanson added that the past two credits did not go before City Council and were instead dealt with by City staff. Hanson said he doesn't have a clear reason why this time is any different, though City Manager Bruce Woody said during the council meeting that the amount of the credit is what caused the change.

"We weren't comfortable with this one. This was a larger one than several prior ones, and we didn't feel the paperwork backed us up making an objective decision on it," Woody said. 

Although this has been happening for two years, Hanson said he has taken the necessary steps to fix the problem but that it's a slow and costly issue. 

"We've spent over $100,000 just on the water lines alone in the last year, trying to get them fixed up so we don't have these problems," Hanson said. 

The property has been putting updated meter sets on every newly remodeled home. Hanson said the new meter sets are up to city code and have been installed on roughly 35 properties. There are still about 60 - 65 old lots that have not been updated at the time of this article.

He added that they would do the updates all at once, but it's impossible to determine where the water meter would set on a new home until it gets onto the lot. 

"Until we do the site work and start actually installing the house, we don't know where that meter set is going to need to be," Hanson said. "We have to install them as we put in new houses. I can't put in 65 new houses overnight, it's going to take a little while."

Hanson said he plans on bringing the bill to City Council again, but not as an emergency bill. If it fails a second time, he said he'll pursue legal actions, though he hopes to come to an agreement with City staff to work out a longer-term solution to the issue. 

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