AURORA — Whether to keep the city’s current septic system cleaning program or change it is an issue now before city council.
An amendment to the residential septic system ordinance has been proposed, and council discussed it at length Feb. 26. Some council reps indicated they prefer to keep the existing program.
The amendment would allow a septic system user to receive a one-time reimbursement for any cleaning of his or her tank that exceeds $180. That payment could not exceed $180, and the cleaning would have to be done by a licensed and certified contractor.
If the ordinance is OK’d, the reimbursement plan would continue until Dec. 31, 2020, but could be extended by the mayor or council. The money would come from the city’s septic cleaning fund and would not exceed $100,000 over the three-year term.
The ordinance went to second reading. Councilman John Kudley said it is likely to be discussed further by the committee of the whole. The next council meeting is March 14.
The current program, which was approved by council in 2011, allows a septic system user to contract with the city to pump a tank for $180 per cleaning.
The existing ordinance was enacted "to recognize that unless household sewage treatment systems are properly designed, installed, operated, monitored and maintained, they can become a public nuisance" and a health concern.
Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin explained the amendment is proposed because the current program is not in compliance with new sewage hauler regulations and it could be a liability issue for the city.
"To continue this program could subject the city to potential fines and actions by the EPA and county health department," she said. "There are testing, certification and records keeping issues."
She added continuing the service would cause wear and tear on the city’s sewage vacuum truck and wastewater plants, and could require hiring additional staff.
"No other cities apparently provide such a service, probably for the above reasons," the mayor said.
Three councilmen — Kudley, Jim Vaca and Dennis Kovach — said they favor keeping the current program.
"Fifteen percent of Aurora residents have septic systems," said Kudley. "I believe the current program provides some means of accountability for finding out which systems are failing.
"To eliminate the program would be a violation of our duty to protect the health and safety of our citizens."
"I think the program has worked quite well," added Vaca. "I’m afraid if we eliminate it, septic users who can’t afford to have their systems cleaned by private firms won’t have them cleaned at all.
"The way we do it now keeps the city in touch with what’s going on with the private systems since the county really doesn’t keep track. We spend money on things not as relevant as this."
Kovach said he agrees with Vaca and Kudley. "The money is in our budget; I think we should continue with this program," he noted.
One city resident pointed out when city crews do the cleaning, "at least we know the sewage goes to our treatment plants; who knows where private firms dump it."
"The liability (for city workers going onto private property) is huge," said Councilwoman Amy McDougald. "It think it’s foolish for the city to take on that liability. I’m anxious to see what the city comes up with in the long run to address this issue."
"We’re just not equipped to continue this service," said Womer Benjamin. "Continuing it would require a new computer program, employee certification and ongoing training and possibly hiring another employee, and it doesn’t ensure protection of our waterways."
She said the service and law directors are looking at what other cities have enacted to better protect waterways and ensure septic system compliance with state regulations.
Law Director Dean DePiero explained such a program is a proprietary function of the city, which could cause the city to lose immunity from lawsuits and "could put the city in a precarious position."
He added it is likely he eventually will include requirements in the ordinance that septic systems must be cleaned every three years and the city must be informed by the contractors that residents’ systems are in compliance.
Kudley offered an alternative to the current program whereby the city could contract with a private firm to clean septic tanks at the same price ($180) that the current program charges.
"We have an obligation to help the 15 percent of residents who are septic system users," he said.
Council OK’d a motion by Kudley that letters be sent to all known septic system users informing them the city is considering eliminating the program. He said some users got letters recently, but others did not.
Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 Ext. 4189 or email@example.com