<a href="mailto: pzekman@cbs.com; mhlebeau@cbs.com; dlblom@cbs.com" target="_blank">Send Your Tips To Pam Zekman</a>By Pam Zekman

(CBS) — It’s complicated. But if you’re a property owner you need to know something about the Chicago rules on “private drains” or you could get drained of thousands of dollars. Who pays to repair them?

There’s one set of rules for single family homeowners or up to a flat. The city does the work.

The owners of buildings with four units or more are responsible to maintain and repair so called “private drains” up to the point where they connect with the city owned sewers.

But the owners of eight condos in a Lincoln Park development believe there were mistakes made by city inspectors who failed to correctly assess what was causing flooding outside their homes.

Condo owner Swayne Latham says it all started almost year ago.

“We got water flowing out of the sidewalk in front of our place and it’s flooding the street,” he recalled.

Sump pumps burnt out keeping water out of their basements.

When the condo owners association complained to the city water department they were told they had to hire a plumber to put a camera through their private drain and check for damage

The city Water Department drain inspector concluded the private drain was damaged and had to be fixed by the condo owners. They were sent a series of three ten-day notices by the city with deadlines to fix the problem or their water service would be terminated. The notices warned that a broken private drain can be a “serious health and safety matter” and can cause “street and sidewalk collapses.” Because the condo owners missed the deadlines while they tried to get estimates and hire contractors to do the work, ”We got our water shut off and we got fined,” Latham said.

The condo association paid thousands of dollars for permits to do the work plus added fees to expedite approval.

But when their contractor removed the top layer of concrete from the street, “There was just water gushing out,” recalled Sara Latham. “Immediately he looked up at me and said this is the city water main. This is not your personal drain and he said I can’t do anything else. We need to call the city. This is their water line.”

A city Water Department crew dug deeper and found, “a massive hole probably ten by fifteen feet underneath the street where it had eroded because water had been running for three months. That’s why the street had started to cave in,” Swayne Latham says he was told.

The city crew confirmed to the Latham’s and others that it was “the city water main not our personal drain that had caused this issue,” Sara Latham recalled.

And in a report on their work for that day the city crew foreman wrote the “private drain was damaged by a leak on water main which wash(ed) out (the) private drain. So city responsibility not residence.”

Days later a Water Department supervisor later wrote on that same report, “The foreman’s notes are based on incomplete information.”

Patrick McDonough, a Water Department employee and repeated whistleblower helped the property owners sort it all out starting with the original drain inspector.

“He misjudged what the problem was,” said McDonough who is a state certified plumbing inspector. “There was a broken water main line not a broken sewer at the time.”

McDonough said that should have been obvious to the city drain inspector, “because water was coming up between the cracks in the sidewalk in the street and in the buffalo box all in this area.”

And he said this is not an isolated incident.

“This is going on all over the city,” McDonough said, but “most homeowners don’t know what to do and they absorb the costs themselves.”

“All in all there’s twelve thousand dollars we’ve paid from our town home association,” said Sara Latham.

Her bottom line on the whole experience? “Horrible. It’s never ended. It’s still not ended.”
That’s because the condominium association is now trying to get their money back from the city. Meanwhile, the Water Department still insists the private drain was damaged and the repairs were the owners’ responsibility. A spokesman says the foreman’s report blaming the city was incorrect because he had incomplete information. The city also says it gave the condo owners extra time to make the repairs before cutting off the water.