Pipes bursting in vacant homes; Foreclosures leave sites unattended.
Annoyed public works officials say the winter freeze has them conducting more emergency water shut-offs because of burst pipes at vacant or abandoned homes, many of them in the foreclosure process.
The foreclosure piece compounds the problem, officials in Worcester, Southbridge and Fitchburg said this week.
Foreclosure activity in Massachusetts increased 62.4 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, and was nearly four times the level of 2006, according to The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman.
A total of 12,430 foreclosure deeds were recorded in 2008, up from 7,653 in 2007 and 3,130 in 2006, The Warren Group's findings said.
Communicating with banks, which are sometimes out of state or out of the country, can be labor-intensive, and they certainly aren't quick to respond to pipe problems, the local DPW officials said.
"Right now, folks are abandoning the house and the last thing they care about is the heat in the house," Konstantin Eliadi, Worcester director of water and sewer operations, said Tuesday.
In some instances, the water practically races out of basement windows. "It's an issue that we never had before," Mr. Eliadi said.
The only thing the department can do is shut the valves off in the street, he said.
"We don't turn them on until all the municipal liens are taken care of. In other words, we're a lot stricter than we were before," he said.
William Goolishian, business manager for the Worcester Water Department, said the city shut off water at 107 vacant houses in 2008. In some cases it was because a neighbor called to say water was running, and others were for vandalism, where somebody tried to rip out the pipes.
Mr. Eliadi said the figure of 107 shut-offs is a small rate in the entire context of the department's tens of thousands of services, "but it's still enough to be annoying."
Southbridge officials this week saw how dangerous it can be.
On Monday, water from a burst pipe in a vacant home reached a West Street sidewalk, where a small child slipped on the ice. The child suffered a facial injury and was taken by ambulance to Harrington Memorial Hospital, according to police and DPW officials.
"It's one of those crazy things that you wouldn't think of," said Southbridge Police Chief Daniel R. Charette, adding that vacant properties are also susceptible to break-ins and rodents.
Fitchburg Public Works Commissioner Lenny R. Laakso said the problem occurs when pipes freeze and break.
"What happens is, if water is turned off inside a house, then the lines have been freezing between the street and the house, because once the water stops flowing, it's vulnerable to freeze," Mr. Laakso said.
Once the homes run out of heat, there's a good chance the pipes are going to break; either inside the house, to the service leading to the house from the street, or both, Fitchburg Water Commissioner Denis R. Meunier said.
Mr. Laasko said when the line bursts between the line in the street and the house it's the homeowners' responsibility.
Mr. Meunier said, in general, the city started seeing an increase in frozen pipes last winter when the housing crisis started.
Because of the increase, Mr. Meunier said, the department began keeping statistics in March.
In the last 11 months, he said, 38 properties in Fitchburg had burst pipes because they were vacant. The Water Department was asked by the bank or owner to do a shut-off at an additional 54 properties in Fitchburg, because they were either vacant or foreclosed on.
Asked about resolutions, Mr. Meunier said his department contacted all local real estate agents in the beginning of the winter, asking to be notified about any unoccupied, bank-owned homes.
"Some of them have and a lot of them have not (responded)," he said.
Mr. Meunier said the department just discussed putting out another mailing to real estate agents and banks.
"It's certainly better to shut the water off than have thousands of dollars worth of damage in the house," he said.
In Southbridge, water recently poured out of six Southbridge homes in the foreclosure process, and the injured child incident was one of two instances in which highway workers had to follow up by sanding and scraping ice on the sidewalk, Department of Public Works Director Kenneth Kalinowski said.
Since the cold snap hit, the Water Department has been called out an average of three or four times a week to do shut-offs from broken pipes, Mr. Kalinowski said.
It was unknown how many of those involved foreclosed properties, he said. The department, quite frankly, isn't concerned about the status of the homes when it has to do a shut-off.
In terms of expense, the Southbridge official said it's "not huge money we're talking about." The water shut-off fee is $75 during normal working hours, $90 after hours, and a turn-off at the main is $100.
But since Southbridge is in the midst of moving its DPW into a new facility, and is dealing with more than the usual amount of snow and ice removal, it "has better things to do than to go out on an emergency basis and shut down water service to a home and then have to lien the property to get paid for doing that," Mr. Kalinowski said.
When their Highway Department gets called out to use its loaders, sand, salt and labor, the expense starts adding up, he said.
"If we have a rash of these things it could wind up being a significant amount of money," he said. "It's certainly not something we budget for."
The Warren Group's examination said Worcester had 765 foreclosure deeds in 2008 and 421 in 2007. Fitchburg had 219 foreclosure deeds in 2008 and 120 in 2007. Southbridge had 78 foreclosure deeds in 2008 and 38 in 2007.
CUTLINE: A child was hurt when slipping on ice formed when a pipe burst in this vacant West Street, Southbridge home.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/DAN GOULD
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|Title Annotation:||LOCAL NEWS|
|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Feb 5, 2009|
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