Mayor Vincent C. Gray and senior D.C. Water officials hope to derail a D.C. Council plan that would reimburse flood victims in Northwest, saying it would set a precedent that could leave taxpayers on the hook for millions in future uninsured claims.
When heavy rains overwhelmed the city’s sewer system this summer in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park, about 200 homeowners and renters reported damage from floodwater seeping under doors or sewage forced into their homes through pipes.
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.
D.C. Water and most other utilities nationwide pay claims only as a result of “negligence” not related to worn pipes and valves or acts of nature, Hawkins said. The agency, for example, will not reimburse a homeowner for damage from a faulty pipe unless a utility employee caused the incident.
Because a water-main break or flood cannot be predicted, Hawkins said, the agency would have to set aside millions each year to pay claims. That would divert resources from capital projects, including a $600 million effort to solve flooding problems in Bloomingdale.
“All of our costs are paid for by everybody else, so the question is, when do we use the whole ratepayer roll to pay back individual ratepayers?” Hawkins said. “It opens the door, and there are a lot of potential places where that can happen and be claimed.”
Many Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park residents counter that there is little doubt about who is liable for the recent damage. During one storm this summer, ankle-deep water rushed through the sewer pipe and into Jared E. Moffett’s basement apartment. He said D.C. Water should pay because it is known that the area’s sewer system can be overwhelmed by heavy rain.
“Many of us, including myself, have been literally forced to spend thousands of dollars to clean, replace damaged property and safeguard our homes because of these sewer backups,” Moffett said.
City leaders said that at least some of the damage in Bloomingdale could have been prevented if more households were equipped with back-water valves, devices that help block storm water and sewage from backing up into homes.
Since 1987, the devices have been required in newly built or renovated properties that sit below the closest manhole cover, said Helder Gil, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But he said a review found the devices were never installed in some of the flooded properties in Bloomingdale because some homeowners converted basements into apartments without proper city approval.
“It’s an issue we find throughout the city,” Gil said. “If you did not get the proper permits, most likely you did not install the back-flow preventer.”
The Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request with D.C. Water for a list of flooded Bloomingdale properties to compare them against DCRA permit records.
Citing privacy concerns, D.C. Water attorneys redacted the address numbers of damaged properties from the agency’s response. But the agency said it has received 34 claims for damage from the recent rains near Bloomingdale, all but three for basements or basement condominiums.
McDuffie acknowledged that some basement units may have been illegally converted but said that D.C. Water should have taken steps years ago to reduce runoff in the area.
“This is one of the most basic services of government: providing clean water when you want it but not getting raw sewage in your basement,” McDuffie said.