Council amends policy as residents tell stories of frozen water lines

City equipment can be used on private property for health, safety and welfare of residents

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

Little Falls residents expressed their frustration, not just with frozen water and sewer lines, but with the response they received when calling the city.

Deb Oslund, whose water lines had been frozen for 11 days by Tuesday’s Council work session, said it had been the most frustrating experience she’d ever had.

On Feb. 8, when her water lines were first frozen, she said she had been told “by people in this room” that the city couldn’t help because of pending litigation. She called a local plumber and was told they couldn’t help her. She called her Ward 3 council members, who didn’t return her call, she said.

“I’m the grandmother of 10 and mother of three successful children,” said Oslund, who has been a resident for 26 years. “I’m disappointed in the customer service.”

Having worked at Camp Ripley for those 26 years, Oslund said, “If we ran business like this has been handled, we’d be out of business.”

Oslund said she felt “left abandoned” and “alone.”

Her husband lost two days of work without pay because they were told “Maybe we could send someone out,” Oslund said.

Public Works Director Jerry Lochner said city staff was able to thaw some water lines, but did not go on to private property to do so.

Some of the problems the city incurred had to do with the inability to get connectivity in the lines to clear them, a problem at the Oslund residence, Lochner said. If connectivity is an issue, the crews had to dig to the lines. “We’d rather go onto the private property,” he said.

Council President Don Klinker said city staff was unable to use city equipment on private property because of a policy the Council approved last year.

“Folks are not happy now,” said Oslund, who challenged the Council to try to go without water for one day.

Resident Sue Wentland’s water lines were thawed the week before, but then her sewer lines froze. She said her handicapped neighbor’s lines had been frozen since Feb. 2.

With a frozen sewer line, Wentland’s sewer began backing up. She called a plumber, who in turn told Wentland to call a sewer pumping company.

“They walked off 69 feet and figured it was down at the junction,” said Wentland. She was told to call City Hall to open the manhole. “It’s frozen a long way out,” she said.

Now that her water and sewer lines are thawed, Wentland is letting her water run. “But this dripping water is like a torture chamber,” she said.

“I’ve lived in my home for 29 1/2 years and have not had this issue,” she said. “Someone tried to say it’s because of the fire hydrant and it was probably under the street.”

Cara Schilling said she didn’t have water for a week, but was able to take herself and her 10-year-old elsewhere to shower. She was concerned for people who can’t do that.

Schilling called the city on Sunday, they opened it with a welder, saying they had been able to do that on the home before when it was last frozen in 1994.

Another concern had to do with bills from plumbers at $80 or more per hour and who should pay them. So too, who would be responsible for paying for the added water when it was left running to prevent freeze-ups.

Lochner said residents could bring their bills to the city to be turned over to its insurance company.

Depending upon the situation, however, the insurance company may deny the claim.

Dwayne Heinen, assistant supervisor at the city’s water plant, said many communities have the same problems. “You’ve got to let your water run,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper than a plumber and we’ve got a lot of water.”

Dumping hot water down the sewer could help with those lines, he said.

City Administrator Dan Vogt said when the policy was put into place in February 2013 restricting the use of city equipment on private property, no one had considered frozen water lines.

Council Member Greg Zylka said he felt the policy was put into place for one reason — to prevent liability issues such as burning a house down.

Lochner said two houses had been burned down prior to 1977, when a welder was used to thaw pipes. Crews learned what the issue was and there hasn’t been an incident since then, he said.

“I can’t see any good in that policy,” said Crowder.

“Get rid of the whole works,” said Council Member Hanfler.

Vogt suggested instead of abolishing the policy, to define when it’s appropriate to use city equipment on private property.

Crowder noted using city equipment was a revenue generator for the city, since work done by city crews at Oakland Cemetery and St. Gabriel’s was billed at $60 per hour.

“You need to limit exposure,” said Vogt, noting the sweeper could run into a car in the parking lot, causing liability issues for the city.

VanRisseghem recounted an incident where the street sweeper broke some tar at Oakland Cemetery and was told the city would get billed.

Instead of eliminating the policy entirely, the Council voted to allow city staff to use equipment on private property in the interests of the health, safety and welfare of residents.

Vogt said property owners would need to consent to city staff on their property and sign a form.

Residents who have incurred plumbing bills or who have increased water bills next month, may contact City Hall, at (320) 616-5500.

Little Falls Council Briefs

 In other business Monday, the Little Falls City Council:

• Agreed to place on the next agenda discussion regarding the city making a contribution for the Green Prairie beach;

• Heard Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union had requested three-hour parking in front of its building;

• Received a list of names suggested by students for the recreational complex that will be located on the 22-acre property north of Little Falls. The Council referred it to the Park, Recreation and Tree Board. A name is needed to apply for grants;

• Learned the Park, Recreation and Tree Board had recommended the Council approve a local option sales tax to fund the recreational complex or whatever the Council deemed the tax be used for. City Administrator Dan Vogt said the Council had to decide whether to place the question of the tax on the ballot by Aug. 20. Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem asked that members of the Council sit on a committee to come up with a plan for the local option sales tax;

• Heard Council Member Frank Gosiak ask that items brought up during the public forum be limited to items that pertain to the function and operation of the city. Council Member Loren Boyum had put guidelines together at one point and was asked to bring it to the Council for review;

• Approved a plan to update the runway at the Little Falls/Morrison County Airport with required safety zoning and moving the crosswind runway. Airport use will remain for smaller planes only;

• Approving hiring Ben Oleson of Hometown Planning for contracted planning and zoning services;

• Approved ordering a feasibility report for surface and/or utility improvements on Call Place and Ninth Avenue Southeast, First Street Northwest and Third Street Northeast; and

• Approved a job description for a public works director/city engineer. This position will replace the position currently held by Jerry Lochner upon his retirement in May.

The next meeting for the Little Falls City Council is Monday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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