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Janesville considers clever workaround to fund lead pipe replacement

JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- Janesville's city council is considering an ordinance that would offer free lead water pipe replacements to some residents.

Wisconsin cities do not commonly offer complimentary lateral work and state laws seem purposefully designed to prevent such deals. But, Janesville found a clever dodge.

"We're a government agency, so we know to avoid government agencies," said David Botts, the city's utility director.

The solution to evading Wisconsin lead lateral replacement rules: don't give out money via the water utility.

State regulations require utilities looking to finance lead water line replacements to go through an application and approval process. Even if the subsidies are approved, they cannot cover more than half the cost of replacement.

However, no such red tape exists for the city to offer funding through another source. Janesville is choosing to give out money from its sewer fund.

The ordinance gives the local government the power to mandate property owners replace lead laterals. Laterals carry drinking water from the city-owned water main to houses and apartment buildings. Pipes buried under private property are usually the owner's responsibility to replace.

The new ordinance would, if approved, allow the city to give every property owner found to have a lead lateral up to $2,500 for the cost of the replacement, according to Botts.

Additionally, low-income residents can qualify for another $2,500 from the city. This money comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant Program. A family of four making $54,700 or less would qualify as low-income. The threshold varies by family size.

Botts expected $5,000 to totally cover the vast majority of lateral replacements.

Janesville justifies using its sewer fund because lead-related pending regulations could increase its expenses. The cost, the argument reasons, becomes proactive.

A rule proposed in October by the Environmental Protection Agency would require larger water utilities like Janesville to treat their water if it contains too much lead.

Botts said that treatment would involve releasing chemical compounds called phosphates into the water.

Phosphates contain phosphorus, an element that can contribute to blue-green algae blooms. Botts says it is the responsibility of the Janesville sewer system to treat sand remove phosphates.

The EPA rule is not yet in force, but Janesville is proactively considering how to become compliant without needing to jump through state regulatory hoops.

Even though the Botts cited the EPA rule as reason to offer the free pipe replacement, preparations began months earlier as part of the city budgeting process.

Botts said the city identified the wastewater fund as the path of least resistance.

Money offered under the proposed program will be available immediately after approval.

The city expects to find most of the lead laterals in the course of its normal road construction work. Residents will have 90 days' notice to get bids for the work and have their lead pipes removed at the same time the city is working on its connected plumbing.

In reports submitted to the state's public service commission, Janesville estimated 745 privately-owned lead service pipes in the city. When added with public lines, about five percent of the city's laterals are made of lead.

The council held a formal first reading of the new ordinance at its meeting Monday night. A memo attached to the ordinance expected a second reading, public hearing and final vote Jan. 13.

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