By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Hamilton County homeowners frustrated by years of getting the runaround on basement flooding problems may finally be getting some help.
County commissioners told the Metropolitan Sewer District on Monday that they want quicker responses to complaints and, when warranted, quicker payments to compensate for damage.
"You've got to have a process that is a lot simpler and more customer-friendly and, frankly, more in tune with what the law is," Commissioner Todd Portune said. "It may cost more money, but ... it's the just and moral and lawful thing to do."
Commissioner Phil Heimlich went further. He wants an independent ombudsman appointed who would handle unresolved complaints and report directly to commissioners.
"No one likes to reform themselves. If so, these things would have been done years ago," Heimlich said. "Whatever (MSD officials) come up with, from my standpoint it's not going to be enough."
The statements follow the commissioners' directive last week that MSD begin addressing long-term fixes to basement flooding.
Portune estimates 10,000 homeowners countywide may suffer from sewage backups into their basements when heavy rains overwhelm the aging system. MSD contends the number is closer to 1,000.
The sewer district is re-evaluating its complaint process top to bottom and will propose changes next week, Deputy Director Bob Campbell told commissioners Monday.
"MSD is committed to ensuring that it has a proactive water-in-basement response program, including prevention, cleanup, compensation and elimination," Campbell said.
He acknowledged that citizens think MSD has not been responsive.
Portune wants MSD to adopt a streamlined process to log sewage-in-basement complaints, investigate them, help with cleanup and pay those who suffer damage when the sewer district is to blame.
Calls are already answered 24 hours a day, Campbell said, and MSD investigates 96 percent of complaints within four hours. However, flooding has often subsided by the time MSD crews get to a home, and crews have a hard time diagnosing the cause.
Homeowners are responsible for problems in the lateral line, which connects a home to the main sewer line. There's disagreement over MSD's responsibility for other problems.
The city manages day-to-day operations of the countywide sewer district - including damage claims - while commissioners control its capital budget. The city couldn't say Monday how much it has paid in claims.
The city's legal position is that MSD is not usually responsible for sewage overflows caused by heavy rain, according to Ernest McAdams Jr., chief counsel for Cincinnati.
"That's probably not going to be paid," he said. "The city's not liable for that kind of incident because it's an act of God."
That's the response Wyoming homeowner Barbara Ross got in 2001 when she submitted a claim of about $275 for carpet ruined by flooding.
"I don't think they have a right to do this to us," said Ross, 71, a retired professor of nursing.
Ross estimates she has called MSD 150 times since 1989 seeking a solution to recurring flooding in her basement. She said she installed the carpet because MSD had told her the problem was fixed.
She wants to move, but fears it's going to be difficult to sell her home as long as it continues flooding.
"It's just such a horrible, nasty mess," she said.
Portune contends MSD should repay homeowners for overflows in which their basements are essentially used for temporary sewer storage.
"Under the Ohio Constitution you can't take someone's property, even for a short time, without compensation," Portune said.
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