In the campaigns for mayor and City Council, the new sewer inspection program is being attacked by challengers and backed by incumbents.
The Golden Valley mayoral and council races could have focused on sexier topics. Instead, the hot issue in this year's elections: sewer systems.
Several candidates have criticized a city program introduced this year requiring residents to have their sewer systems inspected before putting their properties up for sale.
If a system's not up to code, residents must pay for the fix. The average cost has been $3,500, according to the city, but some residents have been assessed as much as $13,000.
"Some of the people in my neighborhood were earliest hit," said Hilmer Erickson, a longtime resident who is retired. "They're having to shell out $5,000, $10,000, $15,000. That's too much. That's not sane."
The program is the city's response to a Metropolitan Council requirement to reduce the amount of clear water and storm water seeping into the sewer system. The water takes up capacity and gets treated unnecessarily and at great cost, a council staff member said.
Questions about whether the project is affordable, valid and reasonable have dominated debates, letters to the editor and campaign materials. Generally, challengers are doing the questioning, and incumbents are standing behind the program.
"The city is sacrificing the Golden Valley residents in an ill-conceived plan," said mayoral candidate Joanie Stockman Clausen, who is challenging incumbent Linda Loomis. Jeffrey Beck, also running for mayor, has questioned the assessments as well.
Loomis, first elected mayor in 2001, said she's proud of the program. "Golden Valley has been a leader in trying to address this issue," she said at a council forum. "There's water coming into the system. We've got to get it out."
Starting this year, cities will be fined if they fail reduce the amount of clean water flowing into their systems. Based on Golden Valley's excessive flow, the Metropolitan Council estimates the city should spend about $380,000 in fixes. If the city doesn't, it'll be fined the difference.
Bill Anderl, a civil engineer who is running for council, said that he believes the problem of water getting into the sewer system is real, but that Golden Valley addressed it the wrong way.
In campaigning, he has handed out business cards with "STOP Sewer Inspections" printed in bold beneath his name.
"Every other city," he said, "has done the same thing: They've focused on disconnecting sump pumps from sewer systems." Sump pumps are a less expensive fix.
In contrast, Golden Valley's inspections have targeted the service line that runs from the street to the house, which is more expensive to fix.
Public Works Director Jeannine Clancy acknowledges that the city's fixes have been more costly than those by other cities. But Golden Valley is in a different situation, she said, in part because its sewer systems is older.
Between 2000 and 2005, the city did a voluntary inspection of sump pumps as part of its meter replacement program. Of the 1,681 pumps inspected, 11 percent failed -- not enough to warrant a focus on sump pumps within the city, Clancy said.
She and Loomis said the city is still tweaking its program. The city has issued temporary certificates so people could put their homes on the market, for example.
"I do worry about the burden we're placing on residents, especially if they are seniors on a fixed income," said Council Member Mike Freiberg.
At a recent council meeting, Freiberg suggested that the city consider establishing a revolving loan fund that might help residents pay the assessments.
And now the Metropolitan Council has committed to offering grants for disconnecting drains from the sanitary system, a program that will likely begin in January.
"Now they're saying maybe there are some options," Stockman Clausen said. "It's election time. Where have those options been for the last year?"
Jenna Ross 612-673-7168