It seemed Wednesday evening that for every water drop spilled from two of Richmond’s major water mains, a question or concerned rolled out into the open as well.
The Richmond Public Works Committee spent at least half its session breaking down concerns from each other and those of Richmond’s citizens, arising from the two major water main breaks in the span of less than one week that has kept Richmond on a boil order since last Friday and without running water. Most concerns gravitated to two bullet points: How to better mobilize and inform officials, and how to take the first steps to start replacing the city’s water infrastructure.
Discussions became passionate, and debate sometimes heated but never angry during the discussion.
Several city council members in attendance asked City Administrator Rick Childers why they weren’t informed immediately that a situation had developed when a 16-inch main on Whitmer Street burst Friday morning, and why Mayor Lance Green and Waste Water Administrator C.E. Goodall, who were both out of town that day, were not brought up to speed sooner.
Concerned committee members augmented their own concerns with those from citizens who felt ill-informed regarding the nature of the situation. Citizen requests included door-to-door canvassing by Richmond police and roving squad cars shouting instructions over bullhorns. Childers, who also pointed out the city media alerts via newspaper updates and instructions broadcast on local Channel 6 earlier Wednesday, had called the suggestions “Great ideas, but we just don’t have the manpower.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Wright said he received his first information about the situation developing from the main break from concerned citizen phone calls. Committee member Jim Dunwoody brought Wright up to speed on the specifics. Council member Terrie Stanley also received multiple calls from concerned citizens and called Wright to receive information. Childers personally called Green to update him on the situation.
Amidst the concern, Wright, Childers and Stanley all emphasized multiple times the importance of the immediate Public Works response to the situation.
“I was in awe of how good and how efficient our Public Works guys were,” Stanley said.
Though several council members openly said they didn’t feel the need to be notified of every city crisis or emergency, the committee and Childers resolved to create a more streamlined crisis response system. Wright said that under previous city administrators Ron Brohammer and Tony Warren, immediate crisis information for the city council wasn’t difficult to receive. He also noted officials started to fall out of the loop, beginning with former administrator Doug Kirk, Childers’ immediate predecessor.
Childers explained a more streamlined information system for the council hadn’t been brought to his attention as a concern up to this point, but vowed to make it an immediate priority.
“What we reached an agreement on tonight is, that anytime there’s a situation that warrants notifying me, then the entire council will be notified,” Childers said. “I’d rather have (the council) notified more often than you want than less often than you want.”
Stanley was quick to praise the administrative response of Wright and Childers.
“We were very, very fortunate to have Mike as pro-tem mayor that day, because I don’t know what our mayor was doing that day but our mayor was not here,” Stanley said. “Rick was at the site when I got there and everything was going smooth and it was under control. Mike handled it really (well) and he deserves to be thanked.”
“We’ve got a very dedicated public works crew,” Wright said.
The future course of action for Richmond’s physical water infrastructure looks murkier and less definite.
After several years of clamps and immediate fixes to what Childers had already called an aging water system, the committee also resolved to once more make an immediate priority of seeking funding for a system overhaul. Earlier this year, 12 city-proposed projects for water and wastewater system improvements failed to make the Mid-America Regional Council’s final cut to be sent to Washington for federal stimulus grant approval.
Wright and Childers did not rule out attempting to strategically scale back the estimated $300,000 per year in administrative and business costs alone to run the water and wastewater departments, and Childers recommended seeking $500,000 in community block grants toward water system projects.
Childers made a very rough estimate that the mandatory community participation required for the grants, which he said will be determined by a USDA analysis of the city’s debt, assets and cash-flow, could mean the city providing up to an estimated $200,000 for a total of $700,000 to fund the project. Before any work could begin, a “consortium” of the Missouri Waste Water Review Committee would have to approve the city’s preliminary engineering reports, then refer it either to additional agencies for further review or to the city for revision.
Roughly estimating from previous experience with the government of Albany, Mo., Childers suggested Richmond’s water infrastructure probably began to show its age enough to be noticeable circa 1994 and that the city possibly should’ve considered the possibility of replacing infrastructure as far back as several years ago.
He waxed metaphorical to explain the logical thought process that happened instead.
“If you have a tire on your car that goes flat, you put a plug in it because it’s a whole lot cheaper than buying a new tire,” Childers explained. “A thousand miles later, you put another plug in it, because it’s still cheaper than buying a new tire . . . by the time you reach the point that every time you go 50 miles you’re putting a new plug in, you’ve spent almost as much on plugs as it would cost to buy a new tire.”
Essentially, Childers said, it was impossible to foresee 20 years ago that it would be more efficient to replace it then and there than to continue making temporary fixes.
Even then, Wright said, a replacement might not have been a realistic course of action.
“Going back 20 years, the city was probably cash-strapped then, too,” Wright said. “It’s a crisis nationwide on infrastructure.”
Stanley agrees with acknowledging a national infrastructure crisis, but expressed her skepticism about the handling of water rate increases over the last three years.
“The general consensus of the people out there is that they’ve paid quite a lot of money, and they feel the infrastructure hasn’t been fixed according to how much they’ve paid into it,” Stanley said. “They don’t understand what’s going on and frankly, I don’t either. If you’re going to have increases in water and sewer, then that’s where that money needs to go – to fix that infrastructure.”
Childers countered that $160,000 per year from the water fund pays for a 750,000 gallon elevated storage tank that was neither needed, according to the engineers who looked over the project, nor built to specifications. Consequently, it can’t be filled because pressure would blow waterlines, Childers said.
Stanley pointed out to Childers cuts to the Public Works budget, city layoffs and the disbanding of the street department amidst declining sales tax revenue as further evidence in favor of the city re-evaluating its fiscal discipline.
“You have to understand, decisions are made in the context of the times when they’re made,” Childers said. “I absolutely disagree that the city is in a financial crisis. Nothing indicates that there’s a financial crisis. The audit report showed that we’re not in a financial crisis. The audit workshop will further demonstrate that we’re not in a financial crisis. We’re just tight.”
Without agreeing or disagreeing, Wright offered a slightly different perspective.
“I don’t think we’re far from a financial crisis,” he said.
Stanley said it’s time to show utmost respect for the contributions of the people of Richmond.
“We can’t keep asking the people for more money and more money and more money,” Stanley said. “We just can’t do it.
“I’m really, really happy with the council,” Stanley said. “We’re all on the same page and we want to do all we possibly can for the people of Richmond.”