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Brooklyn neighbors shocked by city order to pay up to fix sewers

by:  Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman answers questions at the June 27th Brooklyn neighborhood meeting at S.E. Milwaukie Avenue at Center Street about non-compliant sewers in four different Inner Southeast neighborhoods.

Over 60 visitors and KATU-2-TV News joined THE BEE in attending a June 27 special meeting of the Brooklyn Action Corps neighborhood association.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services, was present by invitation to address the scope and nature of 127 non-compliant sewer notices sent out by the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES).

These notices, many of which went to Brooklyn residents, required homeowners to commit to 'Public Service Utility Waivers' to have sewer repairs made at a cost to themselves of from $6,000 to $18,000. The rationale was that the city had discovered these sewers not to be in compliance with regulations.

The problem, as explained by Saltzman and other personnel from BES at the meeting, is that in some neighborhoods - Brooklyn among them - home connections to the sewer either travel across someone else's property, or feed into a shared sewer connection. In some cases this may have been done in a much earlier era by the city itself, as a matter of convenience. Today, however, it creates legal and environmental problems, according to BES.

Members of the Brooklyn, Buckman, Sunnyside, and Mt. Tabor neighborhoods attended the Brooklyn meeting bearing official paperwork and questions about the proposed fees to homeowners - including one, a man who owns several rental homes on one street - which totals nearly $100,000 for updating multiple sewerlines deemed non-compliant.

Brooklyn neighborhood leaders commented on their Internet website, 'It appears that these fees are only for the sewer installations, not necessarily for the permits, hookup fees, or sewer work on the properties that may be required.'

While many homeowners were surprised and upset by the unexpected notices and proposed expenses, most questioners kept their tempers in the meeting. Following an overview and Q and A session, Saltzman and his staff, equipped with a PowerPoint presentation and several BES-connected computers, answered individual questions as best they could.

Saltzman apologized for the anxiety and confusion caused by the BES, saying that, 'Long-term planning will be re-evaluated with public input' on the matter. Each home-owner's concerns involved unique considerations, Saltzman observed, and BES information and contact numbers (503/823-7928 and 503/823-7183) were offered to assist in further evaluation of each case.

John Laursen, Chair of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, stepped forward to ask how the new BES policy came to be. 'There was no issue of non-conforming sewers until 2008,' he said. 'Why should we all of a sudden have to bear these enormous fees? This seems to be a system problem, which should be addressed in a system way.'

There were many questions as to who should be stuck with the bill for 'possible' future problems, questions on real estate sales and possible liens, easements and agreements on 'party' sewers, and calls for re-evaluations by the City. Sunnyside Neighborhood Chair Reuben Deumling said that his neighbors were 'hoping for more creative solutions to certain types of problems that may cause less money'.

After listening carefully to questions and proposals, Saltzman concurred that the program should be re-evaluated by the BES. Along with establishing an Ad-Hoc committee which would include neighborhood liaisons, he suggested that a better system of communication and expenditures might be drawn up that would spread costs more equitably among neighborhoods, homeowners, and City government.

When one visitor commented that $20 million was being used for bike paths and bio-swales and could be diverted to homeowner assistance, Saltzman explained that those programs were part of the over-arching goal of keeping rainwater and transportation chemicals out of the city's storm water treatment plants. BES staffers suggested that neighbors needed to work together to solve 'party-line' sewer problems.

When another person cited the way in which some homeowners received notices of non-compliance and some did not, BES staff explained the different types of non-compliance, explained that new standards that had come into play in 2008 to address potential sewer emergencies before they occur. BES staffer Matt Hickey said, 'Our goal is to figure out what would work best in a long-term perspective.'

Hickey continued, 'The sewer system is underground, and can't be seen until we explore each homesite individually. Our records are very sketchy, especially in regard to older homes and home sewer systems that were built privately or prior to current permit processes. Since some private contractors' bids to perform repair work can be unrealistic, we encourage homeowners to call our office to better understand the fees and problems.'

Former BAC Chair Marie Phillippi received a round of audience applause when she said, 'Since it doesn't seem like there's an emergency now, why do we need to 'fix what's not broke'?' Commissioner Saltzman and his staff apologized for the confusion, and set about assembling the Ad-Hoc Committee of interested neighborhood liaisons to further discuss and explain the issues involved.

The now-past July deadline for signing notarized forms committing to pay Public Service Utility Waiver fees has itself been waived for the time being, and more clarification of the process is hoped for by the Inner Southeast neighborhoods impacted by the new sewer requirements.