South Market Street fire

News-Post file photo

The city continues to bill residents a base meter fee for water and sewer services more than eight months after a fire in the 300 block of South Market Street resulted in the water to their town houses being shut off.

Frederick’s elected officials on Wednesday considered amending city code to waive base fees for up to a year when water at a city property is shut off due to an emergency, such as a house fire or natural disaster. The aldermen grappled with defining the terms of such a policy, but said they supported the idea.

“It’s the compassionate thing to do,” Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said.

The city’s current water code does not include any provisions for waiving fees when water is shut off in an emergency. As drafted by city staff from the legal department and mayor’s office, the changes would stop billing for the quarterly base installment fee for water and sewer usage for up to one year when emergency circumstances render a property uninhabitable and water service is shut off. Service would resume at no additional cost once the damaged property was repaired and its inhabitants were able to live there again.

Water and sewer bills include a base installment fee determined by the size of the meter and the amount of water flowing through that meter within a 90-day period. A property owner with the smallest meter, the three-quarter-inch diameter typical of most single-family houses, pays $34.94 each for the water and sewer base fees, or $69.88, per quarter. Beginning Aug. 1, that fee will rise to $37.02 each, or $74.04, under the 3 percent rate increase approved by the aldermen last week.

Waiving that charge would save a qualifying property owner $296.16 for a year under the rates approved for Aug. 1.

A memo on the proposed changes names house fires and floods as examples of emergencies that could merit a waiver or stop in charges. But several aldermen said they wanted more details on the specific events that would allow property owners to qualify.

Neglect or lack of upkeep by the property owner could result in a burst pipe, causing flooding. A fire could break out from a smoker falling asleep with a lit cigarette in hand.

“For me, the challenge is, what constitutes an emergency?” Alderman Michael O’Connor said.

For Kuzemchak, the very term “uninhabitable” needed clarity.

National codes on property maintenance define any home without water as uninhabitable, according to Kuzemchak. An unoccupied house without water or one where the owner chooses not to restore service after it’s shut off could qualify under this definition, she said.

“A fire causing an issue that makes a house uninhabitable is very different than property maintenance code saying that if you don’t have water in the house then it’s uninhabitable,” she said.

O’Connor also questioned how many instances of emergencies in recent city history would qualify.

“I might feel differently if we’re talking about 15 to 20 versus 100 to 150,” he said.

Keith Brown, the city’s assistant deputy director of operations for the Public Works Department, said 213 shutoff requests were made in the 2014 calendar year, 34 of which were said to have been caused by flooding conditions. But Brown estimated that about eight properties currently without water service — including the South Market Street town houses, the Pitcrew building on North Market Street and the General Engineering Co. building on South Carroll Street — would meet the requirements of the waiver proposal.

Alderwoman Kelly Russell, who suggested comparing the city code with those of similar municipalities, said she wouldn’t feel comfortable moving forward with the changes until more questions were answered.

But Kuzemchak said adding a minimum time frame without water service, such as a single 90-day billing cycle for potentially qualifying properties, would assuage some of her concerns. And Alderman Josh Bokee said he was ready to move forward with the proposal as drafted.

“As long as there’s consistent application, I’m OK with not having it all codified in the ordinance,” he said.

If the aldermen decide to consider amending the city code to reflect the changes, the topic will be set for a public hearing with opportunity for community feedback. More information on the proposed changes, as well as the current city code, is available online at cityoffrederick.com.

Follow Nancy Lavin on Twitter: @Nancy_Lavin228.

Nancy Lavin covers social services, demographics and religion for The Frederick News-Post.

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