Some of the damage is not covered by homeowners’ insurance, so the council has tentatively approved a bill that would establish a $1 million fund to pay for damage claims. The fund, expected to get final council approval Tuesday, would be paid for through an assessment on residential water bills.
But some District officials warn that the plan would make residents dependent on the city government for uninsured or underinsured damage from storms or aging infrastructure and would expose ratepayers to claims from flood victims who reside in basement units built without city approval.
“I just have a lot of reservations about the District of Columbia in essence becoming an insurance company,” said Gray (D), who recently unveiled a $40 million plan to divert storm water away from recently flooded areas. “We certainly want to do what we can that is reasonable to help the people of Bloomingdale, and that is what we are trying to do.”
The mayor’s stance sets up a potential rift with council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), a former Gray administration official who represents Bloomingdale and other Ward 5 neighborhoods.
McDuffie crafted the plan with council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and argues that the payments are warranted because the District has been slow to replace aging sewer lines that cannot handle runoff from severe storms.
“I think the bad precedent is if we do nothing about this,” McDuffie said. “We have people with raw sewage in their basement and people with mold subjecting themselves to all kinds of health hazards if we do nothing about this.”
Under the bill, District residents who can prove damage from a sewer backup between June 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2014, can apply for reimbursement.
The District ended fiscal 2012 with a $140 million surplus and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority reported a $20.5 million surplus this summer, but the council would use a new assessment on water bills to pay for the program.
The assessment would result in no more than an additional 30 cents a month on the average homeowner’s water bill, McDuffie said. The legislation exempts low-income residents enrolled in D.C. Water’s assistance program from paying the new fee.
George S. Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water, warns that the legislation does not outright exempt federal agencies from the new fee, setting up a likely dispute with federal officials over whether the city can assess a new “tax” on those bills.
But Hawkins said he is most concerned that the measure would establish a new threshold by which government agencies and utilities are held liable for the condition of a century-old system of 1,300 miles of water pipes and 1,800 miles of sewer pipes.