Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Such was the message Tuesday afternoon as Santa Barbara city councilmembers voted to redefine — and vastly reduce — the scope of their popular sewer lateral line replacement program. (Lateral lines are the pipes that connect private-property wastewater to the city’s extensive system of sewer lines.) Motivated by an ailing budget and a cash incentive-based program that has proven to be far more popular than even the most optimistic of forecasts suggested and thus much more fiscally taxing than expected, the council voted 6-1 to effectively do away with the three-year-old program — which provided cash incentives for property owners to replace leaky old sewer lines — and replace it with a scaled-back version that waives permitting fees for only those replacement projects actually mandated by the city. “I appreciate the conversation, and I think [offering cash back for people who opt into replacing their lateral lines] is something we still want to do. We just have to find a way to fund it in the future,” opined Mayor Helene Schneider.
Back in fall 2006, working under the basic concept that we all live downstream, so to speak, from what we flush down our toilets, councilmembers approved a sewer lateral inspection program coupled with an incentive component designed to promote inspection and, if need be, replacement of old lateral lines. Per the deal, people could receive as much as $150 for simply having their lateral lines inspected and up to $2,000 toward the cost of replacing said lines should the investigation show failing poop pipes. Becoming a reality in 2007, the program has thus far helped more than 1,500 property owners pay for the undertaking of putting in new lateral lines, which usually costs somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000.
With crummy lateral lines thought by some to be responsible for certain amounts of creek and ocean water pollution, and known by most to play a dubious role in causing sewage backups and spills in both public and private pipes, the program was a success on virtually all levels save for funding. In short, minor upticks in city sewer usage rates purposely levied to help fund the program, netting some $1.2 million, have fallen woefully shy of its $3.9-million price tag. Even worse, to help make up for this gap, the city has, on a few occasions, diverted funds from the equally needed, and many would say more important, effort to slowly replace the 263 miles of city-owned sewer main pipes and upgrade our wastewater treatment plant. “Really, we are a victim of our own success here,” summed up Schneider.
With all of this in mind, along with reports of plumbing contractors occasionally using the program to help convince homeowners to replace lateral lines prematurely, the board debated two options presented by City Water Resources manager Rebecca Bjork: Replace the current program with one that waives city permitting fees — which vary from a couple hundred dollars to upward of $2,500, depending on the specifics of the project — for all lateral line replacements that are mandated by the city. With city staff projecting no more than 75 people a year qualifying for such a waiver, this option looks to cost no more than $150,000 a year and thus promises to deliver all remaining funds earned via the rate hikes to the city’s existing Capital Improvement Program. The second option not only called for allowing all hopeful lateral line replacers to qualify for the fee waivers but also set a total-expenditures limit on the program at $250,000.
In the end, despite concerns from certain councilmembers and members of the public, including representatives from Heal the Ocean and the Santa Barbara Channelkeepers, that limiting the scope of people who can participate is actually a step backward in efforts to improve water quality, the council, in the name of fiscal prudence, voted for option one.