Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tiff over fee to thaw pipes

Quick decision needed on reimbursement: councillor

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A city councillor has accused the administration and members of executive policy committee of deliberately delaying reimbursing property owners charged $305 to have frozen waterlines thawed.

Coun. Paula Havixbeck said the administration should have come to Wednesday's executive policy committee meeting with the information needed to push the issue to next week's council meeting.

SIDEBAR TO FEET DRAGGING

The number of properties waiting to have water pipes thawed has reached 1,300.

The City of Winnipeg released new figures Wednesday that showed:

-- 38 more properties reported frozen water lines between Tuesday and Wednesday, for a total since November of 2,052.

-- Full water service was restored to another 16 between Tuesday and Wednesday, for a total of 752.

-- 33 more properties received temporary water service through a hose connection from a neighbour, for a total of 524.

The official waiting time to get frozen pipes thawed has lengthened considerably. On March 7, the waiting time was 14 days; on Wednesday, the wait was 24 days.

Diane Sacher, the director of water and waste, said the frost has penetrated to eight feet underneath the paved roadway, likely an unprecedented depth for Winnipeg.

"We don't know how deep it's going to go," Sacher said. "What we do know is it's continuing to grow so it will get deeper."

The city has expanded the number of properties in at-risk areas to 6,312, advising the owners to let a single cold water tap run 24 hours a day.

Officials said some water lines could remain frozen until late May or June.

Sacher said the city has experimented with other thawing equipment but while some are able to deal with frozen pipes on private property none of it has worked on the city's frozen water lines that stretch underneath roadways.

"When we get suggestions from the public we always investigate whether it's viable," Sacher said. "We're trying all of it... The only thing that works is (the city's equipment)."

Sacher said she remains surprised and puzzled that so few affected property owners are requesting temporary water service through a hose connection to a neighbouring property.

Temporary hookups are being done seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., she said, adding there are always appointments available.

"I feel the mayor, the executive policy committee are not listening to citizens," Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) said. "We have to have some empathy here."

EPC instructed water and waste director Diane Sacher to prepare a report into the potential cost of reimbursing owners who were charged $305 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 27.

The issue of reimbursement arose as the situation turned into a city-wide emergency.

The administration decided two weeks ago to change its policy to charge property owners if the line freeze was on their property. It was taking too long to determine where the freeze was located. The decision was made to reimburse homeowners retroactive to Feb. 28. But there has been growing support to push that date back to Jan. 1.

Havixbeck said Sacher told the finance committee last week it would be easy to gather the information needed to determine the financial effect, but she didn't have that information Wednesday.

"A commitment was made (by Sacher) last Thursday that these numbers were not going to be difficult to pull together and that we could have had them here at EPC, so this decision could keep moving."

Havixbeck said she's also concerned EPC did not impose a deadline on Sacher.

"We have a (situation) that is not really thinking about citizens," Havixbeck said. "We need to pull out and step up and help citizens here."

Sacher said the report to EPC will be comprehensive.

"What council is looking for is how much cost is involved and are there any other implications as well," Sacher said. "We want to provide council with as much information as possible so they can make a decision."

Mayor Sam Katz defended the EPC decision to request a report, adding council will need to know the financial effect before making a decision.

Katz said the report should also include the number of property owners who hired contractors rather than waiting for the city to thaw their water pipes, and the potential cost for that work.

It's possible reimbursement could be extended to those affected before Jan. 1, Katz said, adding waterlines were freezing in December.

"Let's get all the facts and figures, which I think they can get rather quickly," Katz told reporters following the EPC meeting, adding he'll find out how much time is required to prepare the report.

Katz said he supported the administration decision to change the policy effective Feb. 28, adding he believes there is an argument to reimburse property owners for work done before that date.

"If there are any reasons not to do it, I'd like to hear it," from the administration, Katz said. "What we try to do in life and at city hall is try to create an even playing field. That's not always easy to do."

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 A7

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