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Baltimore spending board requested to OK $140,000 settlement to Hampden couple for sewage backups

Baltimore’s spending panel has been advised by the city’s law department to approve a $140,000 settlement to a Hampden couple who allege that multiple sewage backups damaged their home.

Plaintiffs William and Bessie Fite sued the mayor and City Council of Baltimore in 2017, online court records show, claiming sewage overflows tarnished their house and property. They allege they experienced backups in 2015, 2017 and 2018, according to the spending panel’s meeting agenda, posted online Monday.

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The law department recommended the city resolve the matter to avoid “a potential adverse jury verdict,” according to the agenda. The $140,000 would cover complete settlement of the case in addition to the Fites’ attorney’s fees.

Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore said William and Bessie Fite, both in their 80s, experienced significant damage in their basement, with runoff sewage coming up through their basement toilet “like a geyser.” The Fites had to repair the basement’s foundation, move their belongings into storage and sanitize the home, she added.

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“They were very much inconvenienced,” Moore said. “They had some real damage and money they had to pay to return the property to good use. We determined that we had responsibility.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Bessie Fite declined to comment on the matter. Stefanie Mavronis, spokeswoman for City Council President Brandon Scott — who oversees the spending board — said the panel will likely move the item to the non-routine agenda when it convenes Wednesday to review the case and discuss the recommended settlement amount further.

The city has long faced a barrage of sewage-related overflow issues. In 2002, Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice, and Maryland Department of the Environment to address overflows from the city’s sanitary sewer system. In 2017, Baltimore entered into a modified consent decree after reporting the completion of only half of the repairs required by the original deadline of Jan. 1, 2016.

A 2016 Sun investigation found public works crews responded to nearly 5,000 reports of sewage in city basements in 2015, while figures from the city’s 311 call center suggested the total number of backups was much higher. Roughly 7,400 backups were reported to 311 between October 2017 and March 2019 — a number that likely doesn’t capture the true number of incidents.

Residential basement drain pipes or toilets bear the brunt of many backups, which can occur when rain overwhelms the city’s aging infrastructure. Typically deemed as violations of the Clean Water Act, overflows can also occur during dry weather or as a result of tree roots growing into a lateral sewer line or individuals flushing inappropriate materials down the drain.

A $2 million Baltimore City Department of Public Works pilot program established in 2018 offers up to $2,500 in reimbursement for sewage backups caused by wet weather. At the one year mark, the city reported a 24% approval rating for applications meeting all specified requirements for processing, according to the modified consent decree quarterly report issued in September 2019. About $15,000 had been approved for disbursement from the requests, the report shows.

Meanwhile, the city continues to cite obstacles in the way of completing its goals as outlined in the new consent decree.

“The City continues to be challenged by a lack of contractor capacity to meet the demand for wastewater utility contracts,” it states in the quarterly report.

It lists unbalanced project bids, fewer prospective bidders, insufficient numbers of crews assigned to projects, untrained or inexperienced crews assigned to projects and increased need to re-work due to poor quality installation as the reasons behind its delays.

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