Off the Hook 

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My home is in an area that Salt Lake County can easily dismiss—or at least that’s the feeling in the neighborhood since a collapsed storm drain left us anything but high and dry.

Approximately 26 households on Brandonwood Drive in west Murray lost thousands of dollars to damage from storm water pouring into their homes as a result of a drainage pipe that hadn’t been repaired since its collapse over the Memorial Day weekend. And, a major part of the repair and rebuilding costs may be left to homeowners, since county officials prefer to wash their hands of the responsibility, citing Utah’s Governmental Immunity Act (63G-7-201) protecting officials at all levels from culpability.

Three days after the flood, the county did announce $100,000 set aside for flood victims—up to $2,000 in grants for each household affected—but not because it’s accepting any responsibility. Rather, officials have cited a moral obligation to shoulder some of the expense, according to a press release from Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon’s office. Additional help to cover damages and repairs is a maybe, with county and city officials scrambling to find available resources once damage estimates are complete.

The $2,000 a resident can receive once filing a claim with the county is a start, but barely. A couple of thousand dollars doesn’t cover the costs of water removal and remediation, let alone the cost of tearing out water-ruined carpeting, floorboards, sheetrock and drywall and hauling away shorted-out appliances and ruined furniture and other personal belongings.

The Governmental Immunity Act of Utah essentially lets state, county and city governments off the hook for any injury that results from the “exercise of governmental function.” In other words, the act leaves residents holding the bag despite any negligence on the part of the people paid to protect them.

According to local news reports, Salt Lake County received the first call about the failed section of the drainage pipe on May 29, and one week later, Newman Construction was asked to provide a repair estimate. The construction company submitted an initial bid on June 26, which was later modified upon the county’s request. Actual repair started on July 26—the day of the flood—following a month of contract negotiations and awaiting permission from UDOT for a permit to work in the right of way.

In the meantime, flood control was left to a trench box county crews placed to hold the bank and keep flow moving from one section of the failed pipe to the other. The July 26 storm overwhelmed the trench box, sending torrents of water down the gully and into homes before pooling one block east on its path toward the Jordan River. Repairs Newman Construction completed on July 27 might deter future flooding, although the long-awaited fix does nothing to mitigate the damage that prompt action might have prevented.

The larger problem, however, is the state’s immunity act. Dismissing responsibility shouldn’t be so easy.

Chris Fraizer

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