Lead pipes

Wisconsin's business lobby has registered against a bipartisan bill to help homeowners replace water lines made of toxic lead. Above, corroded pipes in Flint, Mich., were partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. After the city switched its drinking water source in 2014 to the highly corrosive Flint River, there was a spike in lead poisoning among Flint’s children.

SIDDHARTHA ROY | FlintWaterStudy.org

The business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) agrees that lead is dangerous to human health, particularly children's, and that lead water pipes serving family homes in municipalities across the state should be replaced. WMC wants to make certain, however, that its members don’t pay one penny more on their water bills toward the cost of removing lead pipes. That’s why WMC is intent on blocking legislation enabling municipalities and their water utilities to create financial assistance programs to help homeowners finance lead pipe replacement.

Municipal water utilities own and are responsible for that part of a water service line in the street right-of-way running from the water main to the private property line. Homeowners own and must maintain the remainder of the water service line running from the property line to the home. Lead is found on both the public and private sides of water service lines in portions of at least 120 municipalities statewide. Any community that has pre-1951 housing has lead service lines. According to the EPA, there are approximately 176,000 lead service lines connecting homes to water mains throughout Wisconsin.

The cost of replacing both the public and private portions of lead service lines in municipalities statewide is considerable, likely exceeding $800 million.

Water utilities have found that replacing only the public side of lead service lines actually causes lead levels to increase in the homes being served. That is why both the EPA and DNR strongly advise that private service lines containing lead be replaced at the same time water utilities replace the public side of a lead service pipe. Total replacement is also the most efficient and cost-effective way for municipal water utilities, private property owners, and contractors to completely remove lead from the service lines. Accomplishing full replacement is challenging, however, because it requires homeowners’ cooperation.

According to one city, the average cost of lead service line replacement is $3,600, with a range of $2,000 to $7,200. Many homeowners with lead water services have limited income and find it difficult to afford the cost of replacing their side. Even if they can afford it, homeowners often balk at being forced to make such an investment.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has ruled that municipal water utilities are prohibited from using utility revenue to assist private property owners with the cost of lead service line replacement.

Legislation under consideration in the state Capitol, Senate Bill 48 and Assembly Bill 78, makes it clear that a municipal water utility, if authorized by the city council or village board, may establish a financial assistance program to help homeowners cover the cost of replacing their lead service lines. Such a program could offer loans, grants or rebates to property owners. Under the bill, a utility’s financial assistance program must be reviewed and approved by the PSC before it can be implemented.

Fifty-two legislators from both parties have signed on to the bill. The PSC supports the bill as do all of the state’s water utility groups and my association, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. At a recent public hearing on the bill, WMC was the only organization speaking in opposition.

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WMC argues, primarily to direct attention away from its embarrassing opposition to the bill, that municipalities already have plenty of money available for aiding property owners. The apparent source for this extra money is the “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) that many water utilities make annually to their municipality. If municipalities weren’t using every dime of revenue, including the PILOT from their water utilities, on maintaining essential services like police, fire, and roads, they might consider funding a financial assistance program to help homeowners remove lead service pipes. But in an era of strict property tax levy limits and cuts to shared revenue and other state aids, no municipality can afford such a program without reducing other services.

Municipalities and their water utilities are working with state legislators on passing legislation allowing local governments to create innovative ways to help homeowners finance the cost of lead water line replacement. WMC is standing in the way of those efforts. WMC is apparently willing to risk a Flint, Michigan, type occurrence in Wisconsin to ensure against the possibility that its members might experience a slight increase in their water bills. Shameful.

Curt Witynski is the assistant director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

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