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Sewer 'improvement' is a real drain
Saturday, February 17, 2001
By JON HAHN SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST
Perhaps none of King County's computer programming experts is old enough to remember Groucho Marx, but of all his quips they might commit to more-than-random memory, they should remember:
"My favorite poem is the one that starts 'Thirty days hath September' because it actually tells you something."
Well, ain't no duck gonna come down and give the county's programmers $100, like the stuffed quacker that descended with the prize if someone on Groucho's TV show "You Bet Your Life" said the Secret Word. But the rest of Groucho's favorite poem mentions something about the month of February. This much-maligned month suffers not only rampant mispronunciation, but a shortage of days, as well. Most years allot poor February a mere 28 days; leap years stretch it to a mere nine-and-twenty.
But King County's uncharacteristically beneficent computers give it 31!
How else could Patricia Greene of Burien interpret the Local Improvement Assessment bill from the county, which instructed (in all-capital letters): "FEB. 31, 2001, IS THE LAST DAY TO PAY ALL OR ANY PORTION OF THIS ASSESSMENT WITHOUT INTEREST." And further down in the billing statement: "ON FEB. 31, 2002, THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF PRINCIPAL AND INTEREST IS DUE."
Now Pat, an Alaskan transplant, found it difficult from the get-go to take seriously the term: "Local Improvement," since she had been pretty satisfied with the septic system in the older home she bought two years ago. But some of the neighbors wanted all the benefits of civilization, including city sewers, so the petition drive rolled down Second Avenue South and her property in the 12800 block was included in a new sewer project.
Never mind that installation of the sewer caused a leak in the rusty old storm-water drain running past her front yard. Not long after the sewer went in, the rain came and "gushed out onto my lawn and surrounded my house with water," she said.
The sewer contractor, Engberg Construction of Enumclaw, was called and did as good a repair as possible, but let Pat know that the storm-water drain was rusted through on the bottom and would in all probability cause more problems. "And her house is at the lowest spot in the whole block, so whenever it rains hard, it's going to bubble out the sides (of the rusted storm drain) and up to the surface, and she's going to get not only her own storm water but everyone else's from up the block," an Engberg spokesman said.
Ah, but we have strayed from the other problem of what poor Pat is to do about the $7,290 due for her share of this so-called improvement. "Several people have suggested that since there is no Feb. 31, my bill never needs to be paid," she said.
The King County treasurer's office, while somewhat embarrassed over this computer glitch, doesn't have that much sense of humor. "This happens rarely," said a spokeswoman. "We start our assessments on Wednesdays, and the billing cycle goes to exactly one month later. "So Wednesday, Jan. 31, prompted the admittedly humorless computer to set Feb. (all together now, say: "FEB-roo-airy"!) 31 for Pat's payment deadline.
"When it happens, as it has here, we automatically give them until March 2 as a deadline," said the treasurer's office spokeswoman. When I tried to sympathize with her about our own confusing and confused computer system, she conceded that part of the county's problem was a computer system that was more than 20 years old. But taxpayers hereabouts have read too many stories about how federal, state and county governments have shelled-out millions for state-of-the-art computer systems that failed faster than a floating bridge.
What we need to learn from all this, as Pat Greene has learned, is to find the humor in something as simple as Feb. 31, and move on. "Burien and King County don't find (the occasional man-made lake) a priority. They (say they) have lots of other projects -- so I need to prepare to do battle with them," she noted.
If she scores any victories, they may seem short-lived. Since most of the homeowners on Second Avenue South had septic systems in their back yards, the estimated cost of hooking up to the sewer in the street out front is "likely to be $4,000 to $5,000 more than the county told them," according to the Engberg Construction spokesman.
And Pat Greene's low-lying property probably will need an additional sewage-pumping apparatus if she ever were to hook up to that expensive "local improvement" beneath the street out front.
One bit of advice you might glean from all this -- other than to learn all the nitty-gritty details of any local improvement district project your neighbors or government officials try to sell you -- is to find out the ratings and auction date on the municipal bonds that float these projects. The bond interest rate on that sewer project out in front of Pat Greene's house is 7.06 percent -- tax-free, too. That ain't exactly an investment going down the drain, especially in today's economic climate.
Meantime, if she finds the need to advance a legal battle against Burien and King County, I'd advise her to have her case heard by some old judge with thick, dark, bushy eyebrows and a passion for good cigars and poetry. If, while she testifies, she merely mentions Feb. 31, the duck might come down and give her $100.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 18, 2001