Warner Park stadium

Smaller plots of city of Madison-owned land in Warner Park were among the properties that were never billed by their respective municipalities after they were connected to the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The good news for more than 200 Madison-area property owners who more than 10 years ago were never charged for connecting to the municipal sewer system is that they won’t have to worry about paying up now.

The bad news for a handful of property owners who haven’t paid the fees in the last 10 years is that their bills could soon be in the mail.

A 2016 internal audit of Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District records turned up 231 parcels within the district’s service area that hadn’t paid fees to connect to the system. Some are homes, but many are commercial or publicly owned properties, including parcels that are part of Warner Park and the Dane County Airport in Madison.

The unpaid fees amount to about $820,000, according to the district, which serves 26 “customer communities,” including the city of Madison.

Typically, when the owners of a home or other property want to connect to the district’s system, the district will bill the municipality, and the municipality will then bill the property owner and turn the money over to the district.

District communications manager Jennifer Sereno wasn’t able to say specifically why that didn’t occur for 231 properties over the last 30 years or more, but that “the district relies on customer communities to notify the district when new connections occur.”

With advances in aerial photography and GIS mapping, she said, “the district expects fewer issues with unpaid areas in the future.”

The district service area includes approximately 110,000 connection points from within municipalities and town sanitary and utility districts stretching from DeForest and Dane to the north, to Verona and areas around Lake Kegonsa to the south.

In December, the district’s Board of Commissioners went against the sewerage district staff recommendation and voted not to require payment from the 200-plus users.

Curt Witynski, deputy executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said state law puts a 10-year limit on any state action, and that limit “has been extended to local governments as instruments of the state.”

That means municipalities could run into legal barriers if they tried to take action to collect sanitary district fees that are more than 10 years old.

Sereno said “district staff, members of the technical subcommittee and other stakeholders considered various policy, equity and legal factors ... in deciding to pursue unpaid amounts only from areas that connected after 2008.”

Fees from those areas total less than $50,000 and will be billed at rates set in December, she said.

Madison Assistant City Engineer Greg Fries said that if the older fees hadn’t been waived, Madison would have faced a bill of about $440,000.

Only one property owner in the sewerage district was charged a years-old connection fee before the board decided to forgive most of them.

Donna Wilfong, of Madison, found out in July as she and her husband were selling their house that they owed $1,207.96 in connection fees from when the home was built in 1990. The couple paid it so the sale would close, but Wilfong said that in October she started to go to meetings of the sewerage district board to tell them of her experience.

Last month she got a letter from the district director of planning and strategy, William Walker, and her payment refunded.

“It was obviously unfortunate that your property was charged before the commission took action,” Walker wrote. “Please accept my personal apologies for the distress that caused.”

Wilfong said it took a lot of legwork and help from Walker but “they did the right thing in the end.”

Fries said the unpaid fees are only being forgiven in a technical sense.

“Those fees will be recovered,” he said. “They’re just going to be recovered in the rate structure.”

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.