Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Council Approves Help For Lead Pipes

But not a lot. Program will replace 300 lead laterals a year, with help for homeowners.

By - Dec 13th, 2016 02:51 pm
Lead from corroded pipes in Flint, Michigan, is partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. Photo courtesy of Siddhartha Roy of

Lead from corroded pipes in Flint, Michigan, is partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. Photo courtesy of Siddhartha Roy of

The Milwaukee Common Council today approved a plan to replace approximately 300 lead laterals in 2017 and to mandate the replacement of privately-owned lead laterals when any portion of the lateral breaks, with the city paying two-thirds of the cost.

The program was sponsored by council president Ashanti Hamilton and the council’s water watchdog, Ald. Jim Bohl and passed on a 12-3 vote, but not before some controversy arose. The plan will require owners of lead laterals to replace their service lines within 10 days of a break at a maximum cost of $1,600 or one-third of the total cost, whichever is less. The city will pick up the rest of the tab, as well as replacing the city-owned portion of the lateral. If homeowners use a city-sanctioned contractor they will be able to pay off the measure on their property tax bill over 10 years.

The new mandate will not be triggered in the event of a water main break. The legislation only covers the lateral, which connects a home or building to the city’s water system. Replacing laterals has historically been a tricky proposition because the segment running from the water main to the property line is owned by the city, and the segment running from the property line into the building is privately owned. The legislation was spurred in part by high-profile incidents of poorly-treated water in Flint as well as the reality that if any portion of a lead lateral is damaged the amount of lead that can leak into drinking water is greatly increased.

Prior to the adoption of this policy, the city had recommended private lead laterals be replaced by homeowners when a break did occur. That practice had effectively failed to move the needle. As Bohl noted on the council floor, of approximately 300 breaks in 2015 only 12 were replaced with new copper pipes. There are approximately 70,000 lead laterals in Milwaukee. The lead laterals only exist on homes built before 1951, according to the city.

All of which wasn’t met with universal admiration. During her floor speech on the issue Ald. Milele Coggs said that “as we know with every policy we create, we can never make everyone happy.” That was abundantly clear as members of the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Panther Party yelled “horeshit” repeatedly following the legislation’s adoption. In an interview following the legislation’s passage, the Black Panthers leader King Rick noted that “if we didn’t have to pay for anything it would be sufficient because we are a poor community.” Rick went on to to say that “we are going to disturb and disrupt everything you have fun with” including Summerfest and other festivals until they are heard on the matter.

As with any good Milwaukee political debate, the measure wasn’t approved until one council member was able to reference the new Milwaukee Bucks arena, the Milwaukee Streetcar and for good measure, Donald Trump.

Ald. Mark Borkowski led the opposition to the new program. The alderman said “my perception on this item is that this is us raising the flag that we are giving up.” Borkowski, who was later accused of “grandstanding” by Bohl, went on to question the city’s methodology for determining the location of lead service lines before attacking the funding of the streetcar and arena and raising the idea of President-elect Trump putting together an infrastructure package to fund city-wide replacement. Borkowski moved to hold the measure in council another session, noting that he would work with Robert Miranda‘s Freshwater for Life Action Coalition to get what the alderman called “a second opinion.” The motion to hold failed with only six votes in favor.

An amendment to the bill that passed, drafted during today’s meeting by the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau, was introduced by alderman Russell Stamper II and co-sponsored by council members Coggs and Khalif Rainey. The amendment requires the program be reauthorized after one year and creates a quarterly reporting process. It was unanimously adopted. Alderman Rainey, a sponsor of the amendment, predictably voted for his amendment, and then in an odd move voted against the bill as a whole. The alderman has not returned a request for comment on the matter.

Rainey and Borkowski were joined in voting against the legislation by Ald. Tony Zielinski.

A separate 2017 budget measure will also fund the replacement of lead laterals at 385 child care facilities and 15 private schools across the city .

Curious if your home has a lead lateral? The city has produced a guide listing all of the affected properties.

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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Approves Help For Lead Pipes”

  1. AceOfSuds says:

    With all of the emphasis on the lead service lines, don’t homeowners still have a problem if they have lead pipes inside the home?

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