SF homeowner balks at paying for city's damage

July 22, 2011 8:02:43 PM PDT
What if a public works project caused damage to your home and then you were told you had to pay for it? It's happening in San Francisco. 7 On Your Side's Michael Finney investigated.

The San Francisco water department says it's sending out notices to everybody. However, 7 On Your Side found few people even realize it is happening. The city is replacing the water meters at each and every home in San Francisco and it's caused damage to plumbing that homeowners may be on the hook to pay for.

Helen McGuigan, 77, had no idea there was any problem in her San Francisco home until out of the blue one day came a knock at the door.

"They said they had broken the pipe and I would have to get a plumber out," McGuigan said.

Unbeknownst to McGuigan, a city contractor had just installed a new water meter for her house and it had caused her water pipe to burst. The contractor told McGuigan she now had no running water, she would have to call a plumber to get it fixed and she would have to pay for it herself.

"I couldn't believe it, that I had no water, that's what blew my mind that I had no water; I couldn't do the dishes, the laundry, no water to drink," McGuigan said.

McGuigan had to rush to find a plumber and it wasn't cheap -- $4,200 to break open the sidewalk, install a new pipe and pour new concrete.

"Thank god I had the money, it's not like you can do without water till next month," McGuigan said.

McGuigan filed a claim with the city demanding to be reimbursed. The city rejected her claim but did turn it over to its contractor VSI Services. After that, however her case stalled for weeks, then months.

McGuigan got the idea to contact 7 On Your Side and we found out this was much bigger than just her case.

"This is a two year project to upgrade all water meters in the city," San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesperson Tyrone Jue said.

The SFPUC is replacing all 177,000 water meters in the city with new wireless models. The department admits the installations can cause pipes to burst. In fact, it's happened at 36 homes so far, including McGuigan's.

"What tends to happen as you shut off the water, it causes a slight ripple or shock in the system so in the case of pipes are a little corroded or very old that shock could cause the pipe to burst and so we've had 36 cases where that's happened," Jue said.

The SFPUC also says unless the contractor did something wrong, homeowners have to pay for the repairs. Pipes tend to burst only if they are kept in poor condition.

"The homeowner is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of their property and all the pipes and everything within their house," Jue said.

Jue says pipe breaks are relatively few. So far, VSI has installed 52,000 meters and less than 1 percent resulted in broken pipes. Still, there are 125,000 more homes that will be receiving new meters soon and the department concedes some damage could result.

"We have to look at every single case to see if it's the homeowner's responsibility or if the contractor is at fault," Jue said.

Consumer Action's Joe Ridout contends, homeowners should not have to foot the bill at all.

"if many pipes have already burst who's to say your home may not be next? The city should at least offer homeowner the option to opt out unless they can guarantee they will pay for the damages they caused," Ridout said.

7 On Your Side found that so far, six homeowners, including McGuigan, have filed claims for burst pipes and all were turned over to the contractor. Another six claimed the meter work caused other plumbing damage such as broken toilets.

VSI declined a request for an interview saying, "It is our policy not to discuss individual claims."

However, after 7 On Your Side got involved, McGuigan did get another knock on the door. This time with welcome news.

"I got the check FedEx-ed to me at the door, so I opened it up right away and I saw the check and I was astounded," she said.

VSI did pay McGuigan the full $4,200. Though it would not comment, the water department did.

"You can turn the water back on too high for a particular pipe which may cause it to burst, so in this case they felt it was warranted o pay out for this claim," Jue said.

VSI would not say whether or not it has paid for damages in other cases. However, 7 On Your Side will be following up as the work continues on this project.


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