Sewerage district

A portion of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District's treatment plant is seen in this photo from 2014.

Their North Side Madison home was new when Donna and Richard Wilfong moved into it in 1990, but 27 years later, the couple, now in their mid-70s, were looking for something without stairs.

So they found a buyer for the Green Avenue split-level, bought a two-bedroom condo and thought they had all their ducks in a row when they showed up to the closing in July 2017.

Then they were presented with a $1,207.96, adjusted-for-inflation bill for the sewer connection to the house, which was supposed to have been paid 27 years ago. Turns out the Wilfongs might not be the only ones in the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District to get such an unwelcome surprise.

The Wilfongs paid the bill because, well, what else were they going to do at that point?

“We had to,” Richard said, “or the house wouldn’t have closed.”

But Donna wanted SOS to know what could be awaiting hundreds of other home sellers.

MMSD communications manager Jennifer Sereno said it was the “desire to clarify the number of unpaid properties in the customer communities we serve and also avoid situations such as (the Wilfongs’) that prompted Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District to undertake an audit” last year.

The audit identified 247 properties where the sewer connection fee had never been paid to the district. Why they weren’t paid remains unclear. In the Wilfongs’ case, it appears a lateral was mistakenly installed to serve their lot before their home was built, and that it’s possible the city assumed this meant the connection fee had already been paid, according to Madison assistant city engineer Greg Fries.

The district doesn’t bill customers directly but instead bills the municipalities it serves, which then turn around and collect sewer charges from their residents. Sereno said “no decision has been made” about how or whether to collect the other unpaid charges.

She said the Wilfongs were required to pay because their title company called the district to check if there were any “unrecorded problems” with the title, even though it was lien-free, Sereno said. The title company said checking for such encumbrances with taxing bodies is standard practice before closings.

The process for figuring out what to do about years-old unpaid connection fees “does not allow district staff to withhold payment information when asked or to waive unpaid charges, since the amounts are due to Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District from the customer communities,” Sereno said.

MMSD engineering technician Curt Sauser explained in an Aug. 31 email to the Wilfongs’ alderwoman, Rebecca Kemble, that the Wilfongs had to pay the inflation-adjusted fee because “if MMSD allowed payment at past rates, there would be no incentive for any municipality to pay connection fees in a timely manner.”

Even though no decision has been made yet on what to do about the unpaid fees, the Wilfongs probably won’t be getting their money back — at least until such a time as MMSD does make a decision.

The district “does not directly bill or issue refunds to property owners,” Sereno said.

[Correction: The headline of this story has been changed to correct the number of collected unpaid connection fees.]


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