Fire Chief John Wiggins addressed the Bayou la Batre City Council July 11 with concerns about the inoperable condition of several fire hydrants, but city officials are once again passing the blame onto the local utilities board.
Because the Bayou la Batre Utilities Board operates the water lines connected to the hydrant, the city taken the position the board should be responsible for their maintenance.
Mayor Brett Dungan, who has had a well-documented dispute with members of the BLBUB since taking office, said the city council is in the process of finalizing its options.
As he has with previous issues, they mayor has already employed city attorney Bill Wasden to look into the matter and see who bares responsibility for the hydrants’ upkeep.
“We’re taking action,” he said. “The first phase is a demand letter. The second phase would follow according to their response, but we are prepared to go to court.”
Sylvia Raley, president of the utilities board, said fire protection is the not the board’s responsibility, but should instead be taken up by the city.
Raley went on to say the utilities board is only required to have a fire hydrant every 2,000 feet and only on main water lines larger than 6 inches.
“It’s for cleaning only, it doesn’t say for fire protection,” Raley said. “I want the city to be safe, but that’s what grants are for. The city can apply for fire suppression grants, we can’t.”
Addressing the board, Wiggins showed pictures of 13 hydrants he considered to be “rendered useless,” and said members of his department have reported more problem hydrants since that list was compiled.
“This is barely scratching the surface of the problems we have down here, but this is stuff that doesn’t cost money, only a little time,” he said.
Wiggins said he met with BLBUB Executive Director Michael McClantoc about the issue in May – a fact McClantoc doesn’t dispute. However, McClantoc said all of the hydrants shown Wiggins presentation are indeed operational.
“Every time each of these hydrants is flushed, I keep it all documented so we’ll have proof that it worked,” McClantoc said. “There’s roughly 375 hydrants in our system and they’re flushed twice a year, normally. The last time these were flushed was in May of this year.”
Wiggins told Lagniappe some of the hydrants may indeed release water, but aren’t able to be accessed by hoses – rendering them useless.
One such hydrant is on Bayou Street and was featured in a slideshow Wiggins presented to the board. It sits next to a tree, which Wiggins says prevents a full turn when firefighters are opening the hydrant with a wrench.
“It’s up against a tree,” Wiggins said. “We can’t cut a tree down on private property.”
McClantoc said that particular hydrant could still be used, though it would require the wrench to be repositioned after each turn. He also said his staff had recently opened and flushed that particular hydrant.
“Just like the fire department, that fence is not ours and that tree is not ours,” he said. “The city should have the authority to have the tree cut down. We do not.”
There were various other issues affecting the hydrants mentioned in Wiggins’ presentation, including certain hydrants that lean or have partially sank into the ground. McClantoc did say, despite those less-than-perfect conditions, each of the hydrants is functional.
Wiggins told employees of the utilities board that his department has never lost a house because of faulty hydrants.
No matter who is determined to be responsible, the city’s aging fire suppression system is already costing residents because it contributes to a high ISO rating.
When setting premiums, some insurance companies factor in ISO ratings – the best rating being a 1 and the worst being a 10.
Bayou la Batre currently has an ISO rating of 6. In the department’s entire jurisdiction, which stretches five miles outside of the city limits, the ISO rating is currently at 7.
“The city’s ISO rating is impacted by three areas – staffing, equipment and infrastructure,” Dungan said. “The last ISO report was issued in 2010, and the city has already addressed the components it can.”
Dungan said the city has recently added two additional certified firefighters and purchased a $168,000 ladder truck for the department.
Those improvements only address half of the factors used to determine an ISO rating. Nearly 50 percent of a report is calculated using data pertaining to fire plugs and water availability.
“The utilities board has been paying themselves raises and bonuses instead of taking care of the infrastructure,” Dungan said. “They do not have the best interest of our town at heart.”
Raley dismissed those claims, saying the mayor was referring to $6,000 the board sets aside annually for Christmas bonuses.
“Some of these employees have been here 38 years,” Raley said. “When you’ve worked somewhere that long, what’s a couple of hundred dollars at Christmas?”
She also said her office’s salaries and set through the Mobile County Personnel Board and are available to the public.
When asked about the financial state of utilities board, Raley said, “we aren’t broke, but we can’t afford to set aside $200,000 for a project like (replacing the hydrants).”
Raley said one of company’s 25 pumping stations can cost as much as $85,000 to replace and its staff, approximately three full-time and four part-time employees, couldn’t handle the additional work load.
“We have a budget. We’re audited yearly and we’ve been in the black the past three years,” she said. “If we did do something like this, we would have to pass the costs on to our customers, which nobody wants to do.”
The issue is indicative of the feud between the two entities, both of which acknowledge the fire suppression system has been an issue for at least 30 years.
McClantoc said he felt throwing the utilities board under the bus at a public meeting was unprofessional and said there were several different ways this could have been handled.
“These hydrants have been in this condition for years,” McClantoc said. “They were like that during (Stan Wright’s term) and we had the same fire chief, but he all of a sudden brings it front of the city council.”
“Mike told me he felt he was put on the spot, and that was not my intent at all,” Wiggins said. “If they say they’re not responsible for these plugs, that’s fine. I’m here to appeal to the body I work for.”
Dungan said the city has no plans to seek fire suppression improvement grants like the ones mentioned by Raley.
“The city has not looked into that nor has anyone from the utilities board approached us about doing that,” he said. “I assume the city does have the option to pursue grants the utilities board can’t, but obviously before we go on we’ve got to reach some kind of harmony.”
When asked if bringing the fire hydrant issue up at a public meeting would help bring that harmony to fruition, Dungan said it wouldn’t “improve relations, but would cause the public to understand what the board has failed to do over the last 10 years.”
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