City ponders utility line insurance

PARKERSBURG – City council’s Public Works Committee is considering a National League of Cities program that would provide affordable insurance for residents’ sewer, water and natural gas lines.

If an ordinance is eventually approved by the full council, Pennsylvania-based Utility Service Partners Inc. would offer policies for about $5 to $7 a month per type of line to provide up to $4,000 of coverage for repairs to underground lines.

There would be no cost to the city, but it will receive 50 cents of each monthly policy payment.

During a presentation to the Public Works Committee this week, Jim Hunt, a longtime Clarksburg City Council member and adviser to the League’s Service Line Warranty Program, told city officials the program provides peace of mind to residents. Sewer line repairs “regularly run into the four, five or six thousand-dollar range,” he said.

And if a problem occurs between the house and the point of service at or near the property line, it’s the customer’s responsibility, not the city’s.

“The time that customers or citizens find out that it’s their (line) is when it stops working,” Hunt said.

Utility Service Partners has been offering the program for 10 years. Hunt said the National League of Cities, a resource and advocacy group working with municipal leagues around the country, vetted the company and entered into a partnership with them four years ago.

Two hundred cities around the country participate, including Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as 16 cities in West Virginia.

Councilman J.R. Carpenter asked Hunt why they need to partner with the city instead of simply mailing out offers. Hunt said residents often question the authenticity of such operations.

Partnering with the city gives the program an endorsement and allows them to reach out to every resident, not just people in higher income areas, as some companies do, he said.

The program is only open to owners living in their homes, not rentals.

There is no deductible or service fee for customers to pay, said Mike Chambers, regional account manager for Utility Service Partners. Coverage starts as soon as a person signs up.

“Once the resident makes that $7-a-month payment, they’re taken care of,” he said.

The policy covers up to $4,000 per incident, with an additional $4,000 for public street cutting, if necessary. There are no lifetime or annual caps, according to information provided by Utility Service Partners.

Repairs are done by local plumbers operating within the City of Parkersburg, Hunt said.

“A local plumber will know that if there’s a penny spent on this program, it’ll go into one of their pockets,” he said.

“It’s going to be done right the first time, to code, as if the city had done it,” Hunt added.

If that doesn’t happen, the company will make it right, he said.

Hunt encouraged committee members to look over information he provided and contact other West Virginia cities that have participated. The committee plans to consider the issue again during a May 20 meeting.

Keyser Mayor Randy Amtower said his city experienced no major issues with the program.

“I know of one lady in particular that took it. I would estimate it saved her maybe $3,000,” he said.

There was an initial mix-up in which mailings were sent to everyone in the Keyser zip code, although not all of those residences are within city limits, Amtower said. That was corrected by the city providing Utility Service partners with an accurate mailing list.

Amtower said there have been some less reliable companies who sent out mailings for similar services in the wake of the program’s initial campaign.

One positive has been the additional funding the city receives.

“It’s nothing that’s going to keep you afloat, but every little bit helps,” Amtower said.

Like Keyser, Buckhannon has participated in the program about three years.

Buckhannon Recorder Rich Clemens said he felt like the program “misrepresented” the city’s position in the initial mailing, making it seem like the city was supporting the program instead of allowing it to contact residents.

“They did change it, but whenever they do a mailing, there’s always a question,” he said.

Otherwise, Clemens said he’d seen no serious problems.

Hunt and Chambers told Parkersburg officials they would be able to review the mailing before it’s sent out.