Use caution when flushing. It may mean trouble for your toilet--and wallet.
South Gate's sewer system is crumbling and there isn't much money to fix it. Typically, when a sewer pipe breaks, toilets back up and the water is shut down for weeks until repairs are made.
In an effort to cover the yearly cost of repairs and balance the $1-million sewer budget--sacked by a string of sewer problems--the city could nearly double sewer charges.
That prospect disturbs some residents.
Blanca Vega, 37, lives on Tecumseh Avenue, which public works officials believe contains weak sewer pipes. She plans to protest the fee increase as unaffordable at a City Council hearing in March on the matter, but was skeptical her voice would matter.
"They are going to raise the rate whether we like it or not."
The monthly sewer rate is based on the amount of water used by each household: the more times a toilet is flushed, the more it will cost.
An average household using 9,750 gallons of water is charged $1.95. City officials estimate that it will cost an additional 91 cents a month to fund the ongoing sewer maintenance and another 65 cents to balance the sewer fund. With the increase, the average household would pay $3.51 monthly.
Concerned that the fee may be too steep for many low-income residents, City Council members have been reluctant to support an increase without weighing options.
"The bottom line is that we are going to have to pay for this, but we're looking at the least costly alternatives," Mayor Albert T. Robles said.
Councilman Bill Martinez, who, along with Councilman Jerry Garcia, has been working on a sewer subcommittee created two months ago to study the repairs, had also urged Public Works Director Jim Biery to find other sources of money. Biery said his department is already examining the possibility of federal funding.
The City Council has scheduled a public hearing March 21 for residents' testimony on the possible rate hike, which was recommended by the city staff.
Since the 1930s, when the concrete pipe system was installed, there has been an average of one street collapse a year. But within the last eight months, six streets have collapsed. The city has 127 miles of streets, 90 miles of which have underground concrete pipes.
"We got to the point where we can no longer play fix (the pipes) as they break," Biery said. "It's become critical because it's catching up to us."
Because the city didn't budget for regular sewer repairs or upgrades until recently, officials have been forced to dip into the general fund to pay for part of the $1 million annual sewer costs. The deficit in the sewer fund is about $315,000 a year.
Officials estimate that it will cost $10 million for a 40-year project to rehabilitate 40 miles of crumbling concrete sewer pipes with plastic lining. The fee increase would raise about $565,000 per year, with about $250,000 to be used to line one mile of pipe a year.
Sewer systems in surrounding cities such as Lynwood and Bellflower use clay pipes, which are not affected by the acid and gases that deteriorate concrete. About three-fourths of South Gate's system is composed of concrete pipes.
Most recently, a portion of asphalt gave way as a city water truck was en route to a repair site on Elizabeth Avenue. The city spent $100,000 to replace portions of deteriorated concrete pipes that run from Tecumseh to Tenaya avenues.
"As we were trying to repair it, it kept breaking away and we had to replace one whole block," said Biery.
Had the pipe been lined with plastic, it would have cost only $25,000 to repair, instead of $100,000, and would have inconvenienced residents for 16 hours, instead of two weeks (they had to use portable toilets and could not use tap water).
If the City Council approves the rate increase, possibly in April, Biery has already made a list of the top 10 sewers needing repair.
A portion of sewer under Elizabeth Avenue north of Tweedy Boulevard is first on the list. The section that runs under the 8600 block California Avenue is also on the list.
"That serves City Hall and the council chambers," Biery said.