Public Comment

Commentary: Sewer Laterals: Another Thing to Pay For

Friday April 14, 2006

On April 18 the Berkeley City Council seems set to pass a new sewer lateral ordinance. This ordinance requires the inspection and repair (as necessary) of sewer laterals to private property at the time of sale or in conjunction with a general property improvement valued at $100,000 or more or plumbing-related improvements valued at $50,000 or more. The inspections and repairs will be done privately, but they will be overseen by City of Berkeley staff at a cost to property owners for the oversight and necessary permits of several hundred dollars. Over the next 20 or so years, the value of these required repairs is estimated to be in the range of $1 million. 

Most Berkeley residents are interested in improving our infrastructure and environment and, in general, have supported the city and Berkeley Unified School District’ very high taxes for the sake of improving our community. However, in the case of sewer laterals, Berkeley appears poised to enact an unnecessarily burdensome ordinance with costs for property owners that are way out of line with neighboring jurisdictions. 

Since the city has apparently not undertaken (or publicized) the comparative research as requested, that would provide a context for the proposed measure, I have done so to the best of my ability. If any of my figures are off, I want our city staffers to feel free to undertake independent research and advise of appropriate corrections, if any. Here is what I have learned: 

• Albany: It too has a sewer lateral ordinance but charges no fees for city “oversight.” The property transfer tax in Albany is $11.50 per $1,000 of sale price compared to Berkeley’s $15 per $1,000. 

• El Cerrito: Has a sewer lateral ordinance, but no city “oversight” fees are charged. El Cerrito has no property transfer tax. 

• Kensington: Same as El Cerrito. 

Piedmont: No sewer lateral ordinance. Property transfer tax of $13 per $1,000. 

• San Francisco: No sewer lateral ordinance. Sliding scale property transfer tax of $5 per $1,000 for properties under $250,000, $6.50 per $1,000 for properties from $250,000 to $1million, and $7.50 per $1,000 for properties of $1 million or more. 

Additionally, EBMUD collects sewer service fees on behalf of the cities of Emeryville, Oakland, and Berkeley. Here is how these city fees stack up: 

• Emeryville: Charges a flat rate of $16 (per two-month EBMUD bill) for all properties. 

• Oakland: Charges a flat rate of $32.52 for all properties. 

• Berkeley: As usual, much more complicated and expensive! My own bill, which I will use as an example herein, averages 12 units per billing period in winter (a unit is 748 gallons of water) and about 24 units per billing period in summer (because I water my garden and help keep my property and Berkeley green.) 

Single family: $3.11 per unit, maximum of $83.32 per period. So my own sewer charge during the winter is about $37.32 and during the dry months about $74.64. So even during the period of lowest water use, my bill is more than twice as high as it would be in Emeryville and during the dry season, my bill is almost five times what it would be in Emeryville. In comparison to Oakland, my winter bill is about 15 percent higher and my summer bill is more than twice as high. 

For owners of multiple units and other types of properties, the disparity with Oakland and Emeryville is even more shocking: 

• Duplex: $3.17 per unit, $134.74 maximum. 

• Triplex: $3.38 per unit, $198.60 maximum. 

• Fourplex: $3.33 per unit, $231 maximum. 

• Five units and over: $3.34 per unit, no maximum. 

• Other properties: $3.74 per unit, no maximum. 

The City of Berkeley also has a special assessment for clean storm water, which is part of the extensive list of city special assessments shown on the right hand side of the property tax bill. My clean storm water charge is about $80 per year. Do any other cities have such an extra charge? I have asked the city to research this. According to the article by LA Wood in the Berkeley Daily Planet (“Berkeley’s Stormwater Property Tax: Where’s the Money?”, Oct. 29, 2004), this tax money has been seriously mismanaged and misdirected. I refer you to the city Newscan website or the Planet’s website where you can locate a copy of this article. 

I personally am fed up with the city’s constant whining about lack of money. We have far more money available from all our taxes and fees than almost every other California jurisdiction, and I don’t think that we have that much to show for it. It’s time for our public officials to show moderation, fairness and common sense when dealing with our overburdened and underserved homeowners. With respect to the sewer lateral program in particular, evidence of such good faith would be the elimination of the city “oversight” fees and serious consideration of a property tax or transfer tax rebate for repair work on the sewer laterals, which benefits the entire community. 


Barbara Gilbert was a 2004 City Council candidate in District 5 and is active in  

several Berkeley civic organizations.›