Capital Region Water, Harrisburg’s water and sewer authority, will split with city government the costs of an expanded sinkhole survey in the area of S. 14th Street, following a 2-1 vote Wednesday morning that marked the first non-unanimous vote of the authority’s current three-member board.
Board members Bill Cluck and Westburn Majors, who voted in favor of the spending, said that, although they both wrestled with the decision, they ultimately came to view the expense as an investment to protect authority assets—namely, water and sewer pipes that could be damaged by further sinkhole activity.
“This is not the same as buying artifacts,” Cluck said, referring to the often-criticized expenditure of authority dollars on Civil War and other museum artifacts during the administration of former Mayor Stephen Reed. “I think this is a shared responsibility to address an unprecedented situation.”
So far, the authority has dedicated about $271,000 to help deal with the effects of the sinkhole that opened last March, displacing residents from at least nine homes and imperiling the homes and finances of several more. The money was directed towards street repair and towards repairing a water main that the authority says was crushed in the sinkhole collapse. It also paid for half the costs of an initial $38,200 study of the street’s sinkhole activity, board chairman Marc Kurowski said.
Kurowski cited the commitment of these funds in explaining what he described as his “tough” decision to vote against the measure.
“‘Tragic’ is not too strong a word for what folks are dealing with down there,” he said before casting his vote. But, he added, he felt a “little bit nervous” about spending any additional Capital Region Water funds, which ultimately come from ratepayers and are meant to be spent providing water and sewer services.
The study is expected to cost $43,700 and will cover a larger area than the original geologic investigation, completed last week by the Camp Hill-based engineering firm Gannett Fleming and unveiled at a City Council committee meeting last Thursday.
That investigation, which focused on the 1400-block of S. 14th Street between Magnolia Street and Cloverly Terrace in south Harrisburg, identified five potential fractures in the limestone and 11 potential voids in the soil beneath the surface of the street. It concluded there was a high probability of future sinkhole activity in the area, which city engineer Wayne Martin described Tuesday as having one of the worst sinkhole problems he has seen in his 20 years as an engineer.
Following the Gannett Fleming report, Mayor Eric Papenfuse indicated last week that his administration would seek state and federal aid to help cover the cost of mitigating the area’s sinkholes, which would far outstrip the city’s ability to pay. “This will take millions of dollars, and the city doesn’t have that,” he said. Martin has estimated the cost will be between $1 and $3 million, though he said the estimate was preliminary and could change substantially depending on the results of the expanded survey.
Where the city would find such outside assistance is not clear. Joyce Davis, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Papenfuse meets routinely with both state and federal lawmakers with whom he is exploring possible routes to receiving aid. Among these lawmakers is state Sen. Rob Teplitz, who said by phone Tuesday that he had put in a $24 to $25 million capital request to address sinkholes across the city, although this did not include the recent development on 14th Street.
The state, however, has funding problems of its own, and Teplitz acknowledged that it might not want to set the precedent of helping Harrisburg when other local governments also face sinkhole-related problems. “I have the request in,” he said. “I’m not necessarily holding my breath waiting for it in the short-term.”
A governor can also petition the federal government for aid with natural disasters, though that prospect looks even less likely. To qualify for aid under federal law, a disaster must surpass the capacity of both state and local governments to address it, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, explained. He was unaware of any case of a sinkhole being declared a natural disaster, thus qualifying for federal aid, in the past four years.
The potential threat of sinkholes has led to increased interest recently in sinkhole insurance, according to Andrew Enders, a third-generation insurance professional at Enders Insurance Associates in Harrisburg.
Sinkholes have long been identified as an issue in the central Pennsylvania region, but the concern for insurers was traditionally focused on areas outside Harrisburg, including Palmyra, Hershey, Annville and Hummelstown, Enders said.
Sinkhole insurance is excluded from a typical homeowner’s insurance policy and must be “bought back” in an addendum to the policy, Enders said. In addition, coverage typically only applies in the event of structural damage to a home—and not in the case of a sinkhole simply opening on a property, which an owner may be required to remediate himself.
In the Harrisburg housing market, sinkhole insurance typically costs an additional $60 to $150 in premiums per year, Enders said. (Enders Insurance Associates is one of TheBurg’s community publishers.)
In addition to the expanded survey, the city has sought to fund a $16,900 preliminary-design study to come up with options for mitigating the area’s sinkhole problems. On Tuesday, the Capital Region Water board declined to vote on a motion to fund half of this third study, which Cluck described as “premature.”
“If we’re gonna do fact-finding, let’s do that first,” Cluck said, explaining his preference to see a completed second study before funding an additional inquiry into mitigation options.
The motion, initially tabled by the board, was ultimately removed from the agenda completely after a procedural question was raised by the board’s legal counsel.
Harrisburg City Council was expected to take up the question of spending on the sinkhole surveys at its legislative session Tuesday night, following a statement to that effect by council members at last week’s committee meeting. But, as of this writing, the relevant legislation had not been sent to the city clerk and would possibly not make the evening’s agenda, according to the clerk’s office.