Prichard officials made the decision to close the city’s municipal complex for the rest of the week due to a sewage overflow that occurred in the midst of an ongoing dispute with the Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Prichard.
Mayor Jimmie Gardner says the issues at city hall are the result of the water board cutting the water service to all of the city’s buildings Monday afternoon due to an ongoing dispute about billing for fire hydrants.
Gardner told Lagniappe facilities that saw their water services cutoff included the city’s golf course, animal control building, senior citizens center, the public library and city hall.
Shortly after the service was terminated, the city filed a request for a temporary restraining order in court and a judge ordered the water board to reinstate the city’s water service for a 10-day period while the parties work out the funding dispute between them.
However, when the service resumed at city hall on Monday evening, Gardner said “the pressure was such it pushed water from toilets and sinks out onto the floor” of the bathrooms and eventually into other areas of city hall, including rooms used for Prichard’s municipal court.
“Remember, they had not been able to flush those toilets, which had been used,” he said. “It pushed the contents of those toilets out into the floors, the bathrooms and throughout the courtrooms down the hallway.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Gardner said city hall and some other buildings still don’t have running water, either. Because it creates a potential “biohazard,” Gardner said city hall would remain closed until the situation there is addressed, which could be until June 25.
If water outages continue, other facilities could be affected as well, he said.
How long the closures might last is unclear, Gardner said, because addressing the problem could require calling an emergency meeting of the Prichard City Council.
Despite the temporary judicial order reinstating the city’s water service, Gardner said no progress has been made so far in the dispute with the water board, which the city has had a sometimes contentious relationship with in recent years.
In a letter to the city received on June 11, the water board notified the city of Prichard that it owned a total of $243,148 connected to four delinquent accounts. It didn’t specify the nature of those accounts but threatened to cut the city’s water service by June 15 if the bill wasn’t paid.
However, Gardner says the accounts are related to the city’s fire hydrants, the maintenance for which falls under the water board’s responsibilities. Gardner and the city’s attorney claim there have been ongoing issues with several of those hydrants, including some that don’t function at all.
Gardner says he’s been trying to deal with the concerns about fire hydrants since last October and said earlier this week the city wasn’t going to pay for a service it isn’t actually receiving.
“We have found 400 hydrants with major issues, including 20 that didn’t work at all,” Gardner said. “We pay a water bill at each particular building, and those are current. They also have no association to any hydrants. One has nothing to do with the other.”
Gardner suggested that the water board cut the water service to the city’s properties because cutting the service to fire hydrants “would cause catastrophic safety issues for citizens.” Instead, he said the issues at city hall have caused “irreparable harm to the city.”
Currently, the water board is only speaking through Maxine James, a public relations specialist with Alexander Shunnarah and Associates. She told Lagniappe that the temporary restraining order granted to the city wasn’t an indication that the court favored one side or the other.
In a press statement released Monday, James said the water board had “hoped to avoid taking the measures” to end water service at certain city facilities, but was forced to due to the city’s failure to satisfy its “a large, past-due balance.”
“As recently as today, the water board communicated its willingness to enter into a payment plan with the city, but Mayor Gardner again refused to entertain reasonable attempts at resolving the dispute,” she wrote. “The water board holds all customers to the same standard, and if individual citizens and businesses are required to pay for water services in a timely manner, there is no reason why the city should not be made to fulfill its obligations in the same manner.”
James also noted that Gardner has been asked to address the issue of the delinquent water board bill by the Prichard City Council. In an emergency meeting Tuesday evening, the council authorized up to $20,000 to address the current sewage overflow issues but didn’t address concerns about the outstanding water board bill in detail.
As for the ongoing dispute, James said the water board “anticipates this matter to be resolved through the court system, although it does not believe [that] should be necessary.”
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