Confusion on grinder pumps, sewer shared by city staff, customers

Town Hall Meeting

From left, Frank Spinosa, Rick Kennedy and Clyde Davis.

By SHELLY WILKISON
While the City Manager says he is accustomed to following ordinances and state law when it comes to enforcing policies adopted by the City Council, he admits there is plenty of confusion when it comes to Liberty Hill’s wastewater service.
“I’m still trying to answer all the questions myself,” said Manuel De La Rosa, who was hired in April.
In recent weeks, questions about grinder pumps and sewer systems have surfaced as equipment warranties expire and the City spends more money on repairs.
Some local business owners and residents asked Council members about the sewer system during Monday’s Town Hall Meeting.
“This system (pressure system using grinder pumps) was designed to fail,” said Rick Kennedy of STR Constructors.
Kennedy and others told Council members that they understood it was the City’s responsibility to maintain grinder pumps at no additional expense to the customer.
“To the best of my knowledge, I’m answering truthfully,” said Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy, “the grinder pump belongs to the individual. It’s your responsibility to replace it when it goes out.”
“That’s not what we were told,” said local real estate broker Clyde Davis.
De La Rosa said in his research of city records, he has found ordinances  relating to connection or tap fees.
“But grinder pumps came in after some of the ordinances,” he said. “Best practices would dictate that any cost associated (with the pump) would be born by the user.”
Mayor Murphy said Monday that   “the law of the state says we can’t spend money that accrues to the individual. A grinder pump belongs to the individual, and it’s your responsibility to replace it when it goes out.”
De La Rosa clarified to The Independent Tuesday that the City can pay for equipment maintenance, but it should be spelled out clearly in public policy through an ordinance and he hasn’t been able to find such a document.
“There are state laws on expending public funds on private properties. There can be exceptions, but it has to be done through local policy,” De La Rosa said.
“A previous council agreed to it, but was it done through resolutions or informal agreements? I’m still trying to answer those questions,” he said. “We are going to revisit the item, and it will be addressed in a formal way, through ordinances that have the authority of law.”
About 10 years ago, the City began working toward implementation of a sewer system that would replace septic tanks throughout the downtown area,  along State Highway 29, and at Seward Junction. Much of the funding for the system, which was installed in phases, came from Community Development Block Grants that were available to connect households of low to moderate income families.
De La Rosa explained that at the time, the best option for the City was to install a pressure system that utilized grinder pumps. He said installation costs were cheaper than a gravity flow system and grant funds were available. The Council was advised by previous engineer David Allen and city attorneys to implement the pressure system, he said.
“The Texas Water Development Board and the previous engineer thought it was a good idea to install a grinder pump system,” De La Rosa said. “They thought it was going to work, but time has proven differently.”
De La Rosa, who has years of previous experience working with other municipal public works systems, said grinder pumps are typically more effective in different types of terrain and work better with commercial customers.
“I’ve never seen it work well in residential applications,” he said. “But installation was cheaper, and they (the Council at the time) didn’t have much of a choice. That council and engineer made the best decision with the information they had at the time.
“Whether it was formal or informal, the Council thought it was doing what was in the best interest of their constituents,” De La Rosa said.
In Phase 3A, which is about to commence, the majority of the system will be gravity flow, but 15 grinder pumps will be installed, he said.
According to information provided by the City, waste from appliances like toilets, bathtubs, washing machines and dishwashers flow through a home’s pipes into a grinder pump’s holding tank. Once the waste in the tank reaches a certain level,  the pump turns on and grinds it into a “fine slurry” and pushes it to the central sewer system. When items are washed into the system that can’t pass through the grinder, pumps break down.
“Grinder pumps are a maintenance issue. In fact, they aren’t  much different than a septic system,” said De La Rosa. “It may be that the City chooses to replace grinder pumps in the future with a gravity system, but I think we should get some return on our investment first before just throwing out the system.”
De La Rosa said at the time of installation, the decision was made to make the warranty on the grinder pump effective for two years from the date it was installed — not from the date it was first used.
“Some were installed three years ago, but were not operational,” he said. “If they are not operational, they degradate. That decision to install them right away, I don’t know why that decision was made.”
De La Rosa said in the seven months he has been with the City of Liberty Hill, the City has paid to replace three grinder pumps at Meridell Achievement Center at a cost of about $1,500 each.
“The problem was not normal wear and tear,” he said. “When things come through the pumps, they can’t be repaired. They have to be replaced.”
“This is not the way it should be where the City is replacing pumps (damaged by the user),” he said.