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Whitefish Bay Village Board strikes down costly sewer lateral lining project

Residents come out in force to decry project

Bags of debris line the 4700 block of North Idlewild St. in Whitefish Bay after heavy rains caused flooding in 2010. Residents said the water came up to their front porch, flooded basements, and damaged cars.

Bags of debris line the 4700 block of North Idlewild St. in Whitefish Bay after heavy rains caused flooding in 2010. Residents said the water came up to their front porch, flooded basements, and damaged cars. Photo By Rick Wood

July 2, 2013

Whitefish Bay — The people spoke, and the government listened.

After an hour-and-a-half-long tumult of criticism and outrage from residents, the Village Board on Monday unanimously struck down a project that would have repaired sewer laterals connected to nearly 400 homes on the southern end of Whitefish Bay. In total, the sewer rehab work would have cost about $1.6 million, with property owners paying for their own lateral repairs at an estimated individual cost of $2,500 to $7,000.

This first set of nearly 400 laterals, concentrated in what is called Milwaukee River basin 1203, would have been the first area to receive lateral repairs, after which the village would have repaired laterals across all of Whitefish Bay over the next 15 years. The board's actions Monday create a domino effect whereby village-wide lateral repairs are removed entirely from the village's 15-year capital improvement plan.

Public criticism

Though all trustees except Carl Fuda had come into the meeting expecting to approve the work, they eventually conceded to the standing-room-only crowd that criticized the project and urged the board to call it off, many times driving the criticisms home with thunderous applause.

"I may be kicking myself (later)," said Village President Julie Siegel, "but I think for right now it doesn't make sense to go forward."

Though trustee Richard Foster later voted against the project, he chastised the crowd, and to a greater extent village residents, for both demanding a fix to the perennial flooding in Whitefish Bay and rejecting the board's solution.

"For weeks we kept getting hammered by people saying, 'Stop the flooding! Stop the flooding!'" a visibly upset Foster said of summer 2010, when freak rainfalls and catastrophic flooding caused sewer backups throughout Whitefish Bay. "How many of you attended the meetings when we wrestled with this? The only reason you're here is because you don't want to pay for it."

Solutions sought

So where does this leave the village's ailing infrastructure and flooding problems?

Village engineers said the four main causes of stormwater finding its way into the sewer system and causing backups are: leaky laterals, manhole and sewer main leakage, residential downspouts connected to sewer drains and leaky foundation drains.

Since lateral fixes are now off the table, that leaves manhole coverings and sewer main lining, which were approved for basin 1203 as part of 2013 capital work, and a stepped up enforcement of the policy on disconnecting downspouts from the sewer.

Several trustees said it makes sense to wait and see how much the stormwater sewer improves as a result of other, non-lateral fixes included in the 2013 capital improvement plan.

Siegel said village officials aren't currently considering a mandate to require sump pumps, though they may have to mandate some sort of private sewer improvements in the future.

"Whether it's sump pumps, or something down the line in the future, there is going to be a time when private property owners are going to be responsible for their own property," said Siegel. "It can't just be a village thing."

Though the lateral project was shot down Monday, the Village Board had already borrowed money earlier this year to fund the work. Asked after the meeting what the village should do with that money, Siegel said, "I have no idea."

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