Fire Hydrant Talk Dominates Water Board Meeting

January 22, 2019

Tattered orange plastic designates the fire hydrant in front of Gross Furniture as unusable. A fire chief told the water board some hydrants in the county had been "out of service for years."


It's a brand-new day for the Dade Water Authority and its governing board, and a new beginning for the way it interacts with the civic bodies that depend on it.


Or at least, on Friday as the so-called water board held its regular 8 a.m. monthly meeting, it was a brand-new morning. For one thing, attendance had swollen. Water board meetings have historically been attended by board members, Dade

County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, who also chairs the board, a couple of water company employees who give reports and take minutes, and one local press outlet huddled in matutinal sullenness behind its coffee cup. At the Jan. 18 meeting, the audience numbered a record seven, including city and county firefighters.


(Photo: Don't laugh. It may not look like a big audience but it was a sevenfold increase from water board meetings' usual echoing-halls attendance.)


After last week's city/county/water board meeting unveiled seething fire hydrant problems, Trenton Mayor Alex Case, Assistant Trenton Fire Chief Ansel Smith and North Dade Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Lowrance had all showed up at the Friday meeting to provide the water board details. They got a sympathetic listen from the water board. “What could we do for you to make your job easier?” asked board member Eddie Cantrell.


“Timely repair," replied Chief Lowrance. "We’ve got hydrants that have been out of service for years.” He said firefighters had painted a hydrant black in the Highway 299 area to remind them in a pinch it wasn't working.


Assistant Trenton Fire Chief Ansel Smith told a similar story, using a map of downtown Trenton to show where city hydrants were--or, in some cases, were not. Six were damaged or missing, he said. One in front of Gross Furniture had been out for over a year, said Smith, and one near the old herb shop at the Highway 11/Highway 136 West intersection had been out since it was damaged several years ago. He used the map to show the city had 2335 feet of street frontage not covered by fire hydrants between CVS and Case Hardware.


Water company manager Doug Anderton explained that the Gross Furniture hydrant had been a problem to get parts for, and the part had been ordered but the wrong part had arrived. And he said the water company had been waiting to be supplied a new location for a replacement hydrant for one that had been damaged near Fred's Dollar Store when a gas main went in. 


Board member H.A. McKaig warned that if the water company crew had to run a new water line to feed a new hydrant: "That's not an overnight fix." 


But the pervading tone of the water board to the firefighters was overwhelmingly accommodating. “Give us a relocate and we’ll jump on it,” said Cantrell about the Fred's hydrant. And: "We can't go back, but I would like to go forward and see how we can work together."


Trenton Mayor Alex Case also chimed in. Besides overseeing the city's fire situation as mayor, Case in his day job is emergency services director for the county and thus intimately acquainted with the importance of fire departments, fire hydrants and the role of adequate water supply in public safety. Water supply affects 40 percent of a community's ISO rating, the insurance industry standard for determining premium rates, he said. So dead fire hydrants are a problem, but the mayor also agreed this was a fresh start and an opportunity to clean the slate. "Let's just sit right here and work it out," he said.


(Photo: There is a hydrant near the new Fred's but from discussion at recent water board meetings, it doesn't work due to leaks caused when a gas main went in.)


So all agreed to come together to get hydrants working and problems solved. But the tenor of some statements made and some questions asked made it clear how far apart the players had been.


Assistant water company manager Sherri Walker--a candidate for the general manger job to be vacated by Anderton this summer--asked if there was some way the fire departments could alert her when they tested the hydrants. There was no question of charging anyone for the water, she said, but a great deal of it was dispersed during the tests and she was in charge of keeping up with where it got to. “Is there one entity over all the fire departments?” she asked.


Yes, said Case: There was an association that met at 6 p.m. the first Monday of the month in the Administrative Building--it used to be called the "Chiefs' Meeting," he said--and it did issue reports on hydrant tests. “I have never gotten one,” said Ms. Walker.


“Does there need to be anything about who’s responsible for buying hydrants?” asked board member Dr. Billy Pullen about the resolution being drafted by the water board's legal advisor, County Attorney Robin Rogers, for the purpose of reshaping the board.

(Photo supplied by Trenton Water Authority)


“SPLOST pays for them,” said Rumley, referring to special purchase local option sales tax. And presumably Dr. Pullen was referring to an earlier issue the city government had brought up about its fire hydrants sitting useless or missing altogether while a reported 87 hydrants SPLOST had paid for lay idle at the water plant.


Anderton had asserted earlier that SPLOST had not paid for the unused fire hydrants, which he said numbered about 60; he said that the water company had paid for them circa 2000-2005 and applied for reimbursement from SPLOST for such hydrants as were installed. 


At the Jan.18 meeting, Mayor Case clarified that the water company had been allotted a certain amount of SPLOST money to use at its own discretion. “We were originally earmarked $1 million,” said Ms. Walker. As for the unused fire hydrants at the water company, she said: "We were instructed to buy hydrants of varying depths." Anderton explained different hydrants had different "bury" depths, and he earlier had said the company bought them in lots of 100. At the end of the discussion it was unclear to The Planet if the water company had used its SPLOST or other funds to purchase the surplus hydrants.   


And board member McKaig brought up another basic matter: Who was in fact even responsible for maintaining the city fire hydrants? "I had never even thought about it until the other night," he said.


"We've always maintained them for 20-plus years," said Mayor Case.


Eddie Cantrell asked if there were not federal grants for buying hydrants. Mayor Case replied no, grants tended to be more available for items like fire protection wear and gear, trucks, air packs, but not hydrants. Cantrell also asked if hydrants might be replaced more cheaply than repaired. Ansel Smith said no, it was cheaper to buy "extensions" and fix the old ones.


All these and other questions will, presumably, be the stuff of ongoing talks between the newly reformed water board--again, County Attorney Robin Rogers presented the board a draft of the document detailing the changes to be approved this year in the Georgia legislative session, and the county commission is to consider it Thursday.


Board members vowed to work attentively with the county fire departments to get the hydrant problem behind them, and Chairman Rumley asked that that promise be put in the form of a formal motion "so we won't have to have this same meeting next January." 


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