Wichita homeowners lost one option to buy insurance for their sewer and water lines on Tuesday.
The Wichita City Council unanimously refused to endorse a low-premium sewer and water line warranty program after being confronted with widespread opposition from plumbers and pipefitters who said cheaper warranty plumbing work would drive down the prices they can command.
The program, endorsed by the National League of Cities, would have offered low-cost monthly premiums – generally under $20 – to homeowners to insure against costly water and sewer line work, which can run anywhere from $2,500 to $12,000 for replacement.
SLW, the company providing the warranties, in return had sought an endorsement from the city, essentially the ability to use the city’s logos in literature to prospective customers. That was a deal-breaker for council members.
The warranty program came under heavy fire from the city’s plumbers and repairmen, who called it an unfair government intervention into their marketplace.
Thomas Steven, president of Reddi-Rooter, said many plumbers cannot work at the prices the warranty program enforces. He also criticized the program’s “red tape” and called the city’s endorsement a form of unfair marketing.
He dismissed the potentially high cost of repairs to Wichita homeowners.
“Part of home ownership is repairs,” he said. “If you buy a home, you’re responsible for repairs.”
Mayor Carl Brewer fired back, asking the opponents to consider Wichitans hit hard by a struggling economy.
“I understand what you’re saying,” the mayor said, “but recently we’ve had a lot of workers discharged from the Wichita aviation industry.
“Life was good,” Brewer went on, “but now they don’t have any money. Just trying to get you to understand their predicament.”
Ultimately there was little sympathy on the council for Brewer’s point. Council member Jeff Blubaugh said flatly he wouldn’t support “government picking businesses.” Council member Janet Miller said she was baffled about why the city would consider endorsing one warranty firm when homeowners can select from others in the city with a simple Internet search. Such a search showed at least one similar private policy available to home owners.
One possible avenue for homeowner help – a city emergency assistance program for homeowners who make less than 50 percent of the city’s average income – was endorsed by council member James Clendenin.
But after the meeting, Mary Kay Vaughn, the city’s director of housing services, said the emergency program has only about $758,000 in it for sewer and water line repairs, along with a full spectrum of other housing repairs.
“It doesn’t last long,” Vaughn said.
And Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner seemed to target the emergency city program in his comments, saying he was unhappy about a provision in it allowing homeowners to borrow up to $5,000 and have the debt forgiven if they remain in the home past five years.
Council member Jeff Longwell clearly supported the warranty program, but said he was frustrated by the lack of input from residents in his district.
The 90-minute debate ended with the plumbers committing to work with Brewer to create a plan to help low-income homeowners finance the high-dollar repairs.