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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

City Considers Mandate Requiring Milwaukee Property Owners to Replace Lead Water Pipes

Susan Bence
Two dozen people attended Friday's task force meeting. A few carried signs: We Demand Safe Water; another read Stop Poisoning Our Children.

Update: Monday afternoon, the Finance & Personnel Committee of the Milwaukee Common Council conferred over 40 minutes before advancing the proposed ordinance.  It proceeds to the full council for deliberation at its November 22 meeting. The plan would require Milwaukee property owners to pay for their lead laterals to be replaced.

Original story: City leaders continues to struggle with how to replace the lead pipes that provide water to 70,000 of the city’s older homes. Lead is toxic, and young children under age six are particularly vulnerable.

As an interim measure, Mayor Barrett recommended people in the affected homes install filters on the faucets that provide their water for drinking and cooking.

In the coming days, the city will begin distributing filters to low-income homes. But a myriad of challenges face officials trying to come up with a plan to replace the lead laterals.

If both the public and the property owners’ sides aren’t replaced at the same time, the risk of a spike in lead levels increases and families remain vulnerable to exposure.

And the city cannot require a property owner to comply at this point.

Mayor Barrett’s 2017 budget calls for the city to come up with a comprehensive plan for it to replace the public portion of lead pipe, while property owners would cover the cost of replacing theirs.

Today, the city’s Common Council Finance & Personnel Committee is scheduled to take up the proposal, but it already drew reaction last week at the monthly meeting of the city’s Water Quality Task Force.

Aaron Szopinski, the mayor’s research and policy coordinator, told the task force he’s been looking for ways to overcome obstacles to ensure whenever lateral work is done, crews replace the full line.

“We have state regulatory regime in place that prohibits city work force from providing replacements on the private side of any service line.” Szopinski added, “There are a lot of homeowners who are on fixed income or low income cannot foot a $6,000 or $10,000 bill for this kind of work.”

Because some people wouldn’t be able to afford the cost, the city would cover a sizeable chunk of the bill and would allow property owners to spread their portion out. “Less than $20 on an extended installment plan to have the work done lickety split, and we will coordinate the construction for you,” Szopinski said.

Credit Susan Bence
Task force member Dr. Patricia McManus

Task Force member Dr. Patricia McManus says even $20 a month is a burden many families could not absorb. She heads the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

“I’m concerned about people who have hung on by their nails to keep their homes and that’s what I’m pushing for is how people are living their lives every day that you don’t think $20 a month is a big difference. And I’m working with people every day who that $20 is a big difference, so that’s what I’m talking about,” McManus said

Property owners who resist compliance could be fined by the city, which ultimately could shut off water service.

The City’s Aaron Szopinski calls those last ditch measures. “The last thing we want to do is shut off somebody’s water, the last thing we want to do is write a lot of tickets," he said. "The ordinance specifically spells out that those are things that may be levied by various commissioners in getting these service lines done. I think the fundamental thing here is we’re trying to offer homeowners a good deal.”

When punitive measures are imposed, they would apply to homeowners and landlords alike.

Credit Susan Bence
Public health commissioner Bevan Baker

Bevan Baker, commissioner of the Milwaukee health department, reminded fellow task force members the proposal is simply a draft.

“My advocacy is for the best city ordinance that allows us to hold accountable those landlords. We don’t want to interrupt anyone. I would not support turning off water in any case,” Baker said.

Credit Susan Bence
Milwaukee resident Kimberly Thomas-Britt

Milwaukee resident Kimberly Thomas-Britt was among a group of people observing the task force meeting. She urged the group to factor in the views and concerns of residents citywide.

“It’s always to important to get those who are going to be affected, and those who are professionals input into things that are going to affect them, affect the public,” Thomas Britt said.

Concerned members of the public are likely to weigh in at this afternoon’s Finance & Personnel Committee, as a growing sense of urgency seems to be building around the public health issue.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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