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Milwaukee to lobby for state Republican’s proposal on replacing lead pipes

Milwaukee officials are hoping to see bipartisan support in the state Legislature for several proposed bills that would help homeowners replace lead water-service lines under their properties.

Lead service lines have been in the national spotlight ever since scientists found that residents of Flint, Mich., had elevated levels of lead in their blood after the toxic metal had leached from pipes into their drinking water. The disaster has had officials throughout the country taking steps to mitigate the dangers posed by their own water systems.

In Milwaukee, for instance, local officials recently adopted a policy to help residents pay for replacing the city’s more than 70,000 lead service lines. Now state Sen. Robert Cowles, a Republican from Green Bay, is following suit with draft legislation that would allow utility companies to provide financing for pipe replacements throughout the state.

Cowles’ proposal would let municipalities pass ordinances to grant utilities the authority to provide loans to water customers. Those customers could in turn use the money to replace lead service lines at their homes or businesses. The loans would either have a low interest rate or no interest rate.

Brenda Wood, a lobbyist for the city of Milwaukee, told members of the city’s Water Quality Task Force on Friday that she and others are encouraging Milwaukee-area legislators to support Cowles’ proposal.

“We will be working very hard to make sure this moves forward,” she said.

A spokesman for state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said Taylor plans to add her name as a cosponsor.

Milwaukee officials, for their part, adopted the city’s new method of replacing the city’s lead service lines in December. Their ordinance requires property owners to replace the parts of pipes running underneath their lots when the city replaces its own side.

The replacements would largely occur in two scenarios: When a pipe is found to be leaking, or when the city crews are already doing work nearby.

Similar to what is now being proposed by Cowles and others at the state level, the city’s policy comes with a financing option. Rather than plop down for the required work upfront, residents can choose to pay for it over the course of 10 years.

Milwaukee officials have also said property owners will be responsible for paying no more than a third of the replacement costs, up to a total of $1,600.

Milwaukee’s 2017 budget has about $11 million set aside for lead-abatement work such as the removal of lead paint from homes and the replacement of lead pipes at private properties. High on local officials’ to-do list are plans to replace lead service lines at 385 local daycares.

Beyond the goal of protecting residents’ health, Milwaukee officials consider the planned lead-pipe replacements as a way to provide training to residents who are looking for careers in the trades.

Ghassan Korban, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Works, said on Friday that department staff members are now setting up a workforce-development program specifically for people who are interested in finding work replacing lead pipes. Korban said the replacement will not require enough labor-hours to create hundreds of new jobs but still present an opportunity to provide high-quality training to a smaller number of workers.

Ken Kraemer, executive director of the construction group Building Advantage, said last year that the replacement work would require only 14 plumbers.

About Alex Zank, [email protected]

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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