Anoka City Council agrees to pay sewer clean-up bills for residents

Issues from a March sewer back-up in Anoka’s Oakwood Drive neighborhood are still being resolved.

A clog caused sewer to back up in the basements of seven homes in the area that afternoon, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Most of the homeowners did not have insurance to cover this type of back-up, according to Anoka city staff.

Based on a report by the city’s insurer, the city was not at fault – putting the responsibility for the clean up and restoration to the homeowners.

When city crews responded March 8 they discovered the sewer had been blocked by rags and hypodermic needles someone had flushed down the toilet.

But early last month several homeowners from the neighborhood told the Anoka City Council they had been given the go ahead from the city to hire ServiceMaster to clean up their basements and send the bill to the city.

It turns out the employee that passed along that information made a mistake, according to City Manager Tim Cruikshank.

At that time, David Hawkins told the council if he had known he would have to pay the bill, he would have cleaned up the mess himself rather than hire someone to do it.

The city will cover those clean-up costs after all. At a May 27 work session, the council informally agreed to go ahead and have the city pay the ServiceMaster bills totaling more than $14,000.

“We need to decide what the next step is and how we made this right for everybody,” Cruikshank said.

While the investigation showed the city was not negligent, the council supports taking responsibility for the staff error.

“I think this is the appropriate action to take,” said Councilmember Steve Schmidt.

But Schmidt also said he didn’t want to stifle staff from talking to Anoka residents about issues in the city to the point they would not respond.

“The city staff is here to help our folks and they want to help,” he said.

Cruikshank said but for the error by a staff person, the city would not be paying these clean-up costs.

“The city was not liable for the back-up,” he said. “In the future we won’t be paying those costs. Because we had an employee that overstepped I think it makes sense to make this gesture.”

When the city held a work session on the sewer back-up in April, only one of the seven homeowners attended the meeting. He learned of the meeting by reading about it in the Anoka County Union.

Oakwood Drive resident John Engen said the seven owners should have been notified individually of the April meeting.

“I’m pretty sure they know how to get hold of me, even if they knocked on my door,” Engen said.

Councilmember Jeff Weaver said if the council had known this information back in April, there likely would have been a different to a different outcome.

The council agreed.

“Inadvertently we allowed information to get out there that led citizens to believe there was going to be some responsibility from the city,” Schmidt said. “People obviously relied on city staff.”

Engen also raised concerns that it might have been the jetter the city used to clean out the clog, not the clog itself, that caused more than six inches of sewage and an inch of human feces to back-up on his basement floor.

Several residents have been concerned about the fact it was hypodermic needles found in the sewer system and that the police were not involved in an investigation.

There are 308 properties upstream of where the clog was located.

According to Public Services Director Greg Lee, the city is doing some public education about the recent problem.

It will include information in the city’s upcoming newsletter, along with utility bills, about what is appropriate to put down the sewer. It also urges residents to make sure sewer back-ups are covered under their homeowner insurance policies.

But the delay in getting that information out frustrated some.

“It would have been nice if it happened two weeks after the incident, instead of two months,” said Kevin Grabinske, who was one of the seven homeowners affected by the back-up.

This neighborhood has also been added to the city’s list of high-risk areas to keep an eye on, according to Lee.

Mandy Moran Froemming is at editor.anokaunion@ecm-inc.com

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