Resident heated about gas line reroute bill

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

JASPER — When Franklin Rojas moved into his home on Leopold Street 26 years ago, the gas line was already in place. It ran underneath the garage on the property and linked into a meter.

Soon, Rojas will be on the hook for part of the cost of its relocation. And he isn’t the only Jasper homeowner facing a similar fate.

Rojas believes the bill isn’t his to pay — even if it is just a share. The city utility believes it is.

“This is not right,” Rojas said. “What they’re trying to do to me is not right. It’s not the money, it’s the principle. I bought the house the way it is. Why, now, [are] they going to change the rules in the middle of the game?”

Bud Hauersperger, Jasper’s general utilities manager, explained that this year, a handful of other residents have already paid for the moving of gas lines underneath accessory structures on their properties that were in place before they owned the land. A list of 15 homes that will require pipes to be relocated has been compiled by the gas department.

Improperly installing a gas service line underneath a building is a federal standards violation — and a safety hazard. The question is: Because these homeowners inherited a bad situation, should the cost of making it right be shouldered by all city ratepayers?

“We’re not a for-profit company,” Hauersperger said of the city’s utilities. “So, if they (the homeowners in violation) don’t pay for it, that means all the other homeowners in the city pay for it. All the other customers pay for it.”

Monday night, the Jasper Utility Service Board approved the terms of a program that will facilitate the relocation of qualifying gas lines underneath residential buildings across the city in 2019 and 2020.

Using a cost-share analysis, the board approved the details of the program: For current homeowners who purchased their homes after any structure was installed above a gas line, the city will provide labor to have the lines removed, and the homeowner will pay for welding charges and material costs.

This cuts the project costs to about an even split per side. But that doesn’t sit well with Rojas.

“We should not pay anything,” he said. He believes he and homeowners in his situation should be grandfathered in and not have to shoulder those project costs.

The average price tag for these kind of residential line reroute projects is about $2,000 total before the split, but can vary, Hauersperger explained. A three-month payment plan was discussed favorably by the utility service board at Monday’s meeting.

Two weeks after Rojas’ neighbor hired a contractor to complete sewer work, gas department representatives visited Rojas and told him the pipe running underneath his garage needed to be moved. He was given a rough estimate for the work, and the relocation was completed late last week. The crew that completed the relocation also cut into his driveway and left a square hole in the concrete — another repair expense Rojas expects to incur.

He doesn’t know for certain what his final bill will be from the city, but he said he has been told that if he doesn’t pay, his gas could be shut off. After exhausting all other options, Rojas plans to take the matter to court, and he believes that, legally, there is a chance he could win the case.

Hauersperger acknowledged that the surprise expense can be a “pretty substantial cost,” and added that the goal of the program is to lessen bills by covering the labor. He said that historically, in similar cases, the utility service board has placed the financial responsibility on the property owner in question and not the entire ratepayer base.

“So, I think it just falls back on the present homeowner,” he said. “And we’re trying to work with them on that.”

Hauersperger believes some of the structures in violation were installed before 811, the national phone number designated by the Federal Communications Commission that connects professionals and homeowners who plan to dig, was created. In the future, he explained that the utilities plan to be more proactive in locating lines before accessory structure projects begin.

Inspections at other homes that are believed to potentially be in violation will begin soon. Hauersperger encouraged residents who believe gas lines are running underneath buildings on their property to call the utilities so they can examine the lines and potentially fix them for safety purposes.




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