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Immunity act flushes away hopes

When sewage backed up in a bathtub and soaked a floor in Steve Casey’s house Feb. 20, it also dredged up memories of a similar occurrence almost exactly eight years earlier. Once again, Casey was facing a battle with City Hall to get reimbursed for the costs of the backup. He and two other Glenwood Park residents lost that battle Thursday night when City Council voted 4-3 to reject their request to pay about $24,500 in claims related to the backup. The city claims there was no negligence on its part in causing the backup in three homes on Brush Creek Lane in Glenwood Park. Based on that rationale, both city staff and the city’s insurer rejected the claims, citing state Governmental Immunity Act protections where negligence hasn’t occurred. Three council members expressed discomfort over leaving the residents uncompensated for the backup. “As far as I’m concerned we did not provide an acceptable level of service to the citizens,” said council member Chris McGovern. But others pointed to the reason behind the immunity act, which is designed to enable cities to provide services affordably by being provided a degree of protection from lawsuits. In the case of the sewage backup, “It’s a horrible situation but everybody’s saying it’s clearly an accident,” said council member Bruce Christensen. “I would be terrified to set this kind of precedent where we say we reimburse private citizens for accidents.” The backup affected the Casey, Telinde and Lewis families on Brush Creek Lane. Casey said all of them had to have carpet torn out and floors sanitized, and suffered damages to personal belongings. He said the sewage was several inches deep at the Telinde home, requiring drywall to be replaced as well. The Telindes sought about $14,000 in reimbursements, the Lewises about $4,600 and the Caseys about $5,800. Following a Feb. 19, 1997, backup, the city eventually reimbursed Casey for his costs, he said. He said that decision followed discovery that construction material had entered the sewage system via a manhole, plugging the sewer main line. The latest backup eventually was traced to tree roots. City officials say they aren’t to blame because the sewer line had been cleaned monthly with a sewer cleaning jet truck. Casey said he doesn’t think the city was negligent, but he still believes it has a responsibility in the matter. He also thinks the city should ask itself how it is going to detect tree roots in sewer lines in the future. “I would think that you would be overly concerned about this problem,” he said. Council member Larry Beckwith proposed sharing the cost with homeowners in such situations by covering expenses above a $2,500 deductible. “It is … a city system and they should not have to have the full brunt of something that failed,” he said. While McGovern and council member Dave Merritt agreed, others on council worried where providing compensation in this case might lead. “To me it’s an ethical issue. If we’re going to do it for one we’ve got to do it for everybody,” Christensen said. City Attorney Karl Hanlon said if council decides to pay for the backup, it needs to be prepared to pay for not only future such occurrences, and possibly some past ones as well. Had council approved payment for the backup, it would have cost $10.40 for each city sewer customer. Mayor Larry Emery noted that the city water and sewer system already is underfunded, and taking on costs of sewer backups such as the February incident would add to the financial burden. “It’s a bad situation. It’s a bad accident. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody but it’s just not the fault of the city,” he said. Council members Dan Richardson and Joe O’Donnell joined Emery and Christensen in rejecting the request for reimbursement. However, council directed the city to look into the possibility of providing a grant program to help fund purchase and installation of anti-backflow devices to protect homes from backups. Only O’Donnell voted against pursuing the program, worrying how it could be funded given the city’s current difficult financial situation.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516 dwebb@postindependent.com


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