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Everett proposal requires backwater valves, limiting claims
EVERETT — If you live north of 41st Street, have a basement and haven’t installed a backwater valve yet, the city may soon make you get one.
The city is proposing sweeping changes to mitigate north Everett’s flood prone areas as it approaches the one-year anniversaries of the infamous sewage overflows of Aug. 29 and Sept. 6.
Heavy rainfall caused lines that carry sewage and storm water in the same pipe to overfill and back up into basements and the streets.
The sewage resulted in $4.3 million worth of damage claims the city paid out of Everett’s utility fund accounts, which is funded by revenues from sewer, water and storm water rates. 
The city is turning to requiring backwater valves to cut the risk of a repeat incident. The city will pay for the installations.
In a three-pronged proposal, Everett wants to mandate installing backwater valves at 1,800 homes and locations, limit damage claim payouts to no more than $25,000 and have city workers take responsibility for maintaining almost everybody’s backwater valve.
The City Council is mulling these changes over, but did not approve anything last week.
Council members seemed amenable to limiting damage claims, but some council members raised concerns that having city workers maintain the backwater valves could require new hires in public works at a time the city is focused on cutting back costs.
Mayor Ray Stephanson made clear at the council meeting the city isn’t asking to hire anyone at this time.
 
Backwater valve program
The backwater valves would be at the city’s expense.
Property owners who the city says need to get a backwater valve will be notified by mail.
Residents can either have the city install a valve in the next few years, or jump the line and have it done themselves with a contractor. If you use a contractor, the city will reimburse you with a rebate check.
People will be given a deadline to get a backwater valve. Miss the deadline, and you will be prevented from making a claim under the city’s currently proposed rules.
The backwater valve program could cost up to $4.5 million, public works engineer Grant Moen said.
Having a contractor install the backwater valve may cost a homeowner up to $2,500 that the city would reimburse, Moen said.
The 1,800 properties were identified by the city using a flood scenario model, although most have never had any flooding issues, city attorney Tim Benedict said. 
The city anticipates more heavy rains will create similar situations to last year’s floods.
Councilman Ron Gipson raised the question about what happens if someone cannot pay a contractor upfront to put in the backwater valve by deadline.
Benedict’s response was that contractors are willing to work with consignment forms that tell a contractor the city will pay them post-construction.
In addition, the city wants its workers to handle maintaining the valves to avoid problems with unmaintained valves. Backwater valves are proven to work, but some unmaintained valves failed to keep water out during floods.
The valves need to be maintained approximately every three months.
The mayor and some council members argue this is the best route to mitigate further damage claims.
“The balance here is the amount for the claims, and a 90 percent success rate (with backwater valves),” Stephanson said. “We landed on this as the best approach.”
 
Limiting damage claims
Limiting the city’s top claim payout to $25,000 shouldn’t affect most homes, but people who outfit their basements with pricey stuff — think “man cave” — should take note.
Roughly four out of five households had claims under $25,000.
There were 179 claims the city accepted, 112 of which came from everyday households mostly in north Everett.
Among the claims, the city paid to restore 31 basement entertainment rooms and 10 basement kitchens. Nineteen of these claims exceeded $25,000.
The city also wants to limit claims for tenants and renters to $5,000 under the proposed changes.
The most expensive claims are actually coming from the 43 commercial operations that filed damages to insurers. 
The city’s getting hit with these businesses’ insurance companies asking for subrogation reimbursements, often in excess of half a million dollars.
The city wants to limit businesses to a $25,000 payout as well, and insurance companies would have to eat the rest.
The limits would have saved the city plenty in hindsight. 
By capping payouts, the city would be paying an estimated $2.4 million in claims instead of the $4.3 million it’s set to pay out for the flood damage.
In the wake of the storms, Stephanson made a pledge to help affected people be “made whole.”
Altruism wasn’t always how the city treated people; years ago, the city usually flatly denied claims, Benedict said.
The payout money comes from utility funds paid for by utility rates. The money also is used for fixing pipes.
Capping the payouts is a policy question of where the responsibility lies, Benedict said.
“Most people would be taken care of, but people with expensive furnishings would be short,” Benedict said. 
 
Preventive work
The city is actively separating pipes as it does sewer pipe replacements, but it will take a long time for the city to get rid of its older-style combined sewer and storm water pipes.
The Northwest Neighborhood, one of the heaviest hit areas last year, is due to receive separated pipes this year through the Sewer M project.
Separating all of the combined storm water pipes would cost more than $1 billion if done all at once. There is 145 miles of combined pipe to replace, which is almost the distance of driving to Lake Chelan.


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