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City outlines water board decision

JOHNSTOWN — The city has broken its silence in a big way over why it feels the Water Board should be abolished.

City officials on Thursday gave numerous reasons why they believe a change in the City Charter to abolish the city Water Board and transfer its powers and duties to the Common Council is now necessary.

The council set a public hearing on the board abolishment for 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall. The issue will come before voters Nov. 3 in a referendum.

The Leader-Herald met Thursday in the office of Mayor Vern Jackson with officials pointing to various problems with the Water Board in recent years. They also point to an expanded Fulton County grand jury report they claim states the city should take over the volunteer board, which believes it is independent from city government.

“All they want is our money,” Jackson said of the board.

He feels city government can do a better job running the Water Department than the board, which he claims has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.

Following a three-month investigation by the grand jury, the report from last December mainly centered on two issues — how city Water Department employees report their work duties and are paid, and an issue with a Linden Avenue property owner who was trying to tap into city water. The report didn’t call for indictments.

But it made four main recommendations for the board and city government for the future. Those recommendations were: The water board should hire a water superintendent, establish a chain of command for the Water Department, the board must have bylaws in place, and the city and water board should ensure any future land projects go through necessary steps to get state Department of Health approval for installing water lines prior to selling.

Jackson, Water Water Plant Operator John Denmark, City Treasurer Michael Gifford and 1st Ward Councilman Bradley Hayner, council liaison to the board, cited various reasons to abolish the board.

The mayor said there is a spillway project at Cork Center that could have been done three years ago at a cost of $1 million, but now costs about $3.5 million.

“They did absolutely nothing,” Jackson said.

Gifford said a lack of files for projects through the Water Board is one of the main reasons why he currently can’t complete needed city audits for the state. He called some of his dealings with the board “circular illogic.”

The officials feel the Water Board didn’t take advice years ago to purchase needed sand washing equipment. The city had to purchase water from the city of Gloversville at a cost of $200,000 in 2019 for 61 million gallons.

The Water Board chose to buy remote meter reading heads from a company that didn’t have good reviews from its current customers. The board has been using Master Meter and is about halfway through a laborious project to replace 3,500 accounts.

The city also has had much “unaccounted for” water in the recent years, officials said. Denmark for which the city has to answer to the EPA and DEC.

Cork Center storage reservoir dam still needs phase two work of the mandated improvements by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, officials said. The spillway needs major work, two gate valves need to be replaced, and valves at the base of the dam need to be rehabbed.

Jackson alluded to a fraudulent timecard, and the fact the Water Board has lost the city $20,000 for legal fees fighting personnel issues.

Gifford said that City Attorney Michael Poulin indicated that every time the Water Board obtains outside counsel, it must get Common Council approval, which it doesn’t. City officials estimated $38,000 total spent on board legal fees.

In the search for a water superintendent, Jackson said the city can do the job at no cost, but the Water Board won’t accept the offer. The last time the city had such a superintendent was 1998.

The Water Board has been informed for the past 15 years that the two sedimentation basins that apply water to the Cold Brook Reservoir are in need of repairs. They include the Sylvan Falls basin that was built in 1868 that is in need of major repairs.

The gate house at the Cork Center intake reservoir built in 1894 needed a new roof and floor, with nothing done for over 10 years. Also aeration equipment at the reservoir are in need of repairs. The wiring at both filtration facilities are in need of replacement.

The Water Department is required to have an emergency response plan that specifies how the department will handle an emergency.

Officials also point to the Water Board working to hire a water superintendent before a vote was taken by the Common Council. The person was hired for six days, but the city didn’t have funding for his salary and now the city is paying his unemployment.

The Water Board did not plan ahead for future operators to operate the filtration facilities. Jackson says it takes 10 years to learn the job Denmark is certified for and he may retire in upcoming years.

“I said you got to get people trained in this job,” Jackson said.

There is a “revolving door” problem with employees in the Water Department, the city officials said. If the department can’t keep an employee for more than a few years, eventually the department has employees with little water system knowledge.

A union in 2020 unanimously voted the Water Board out of the union contract. All matters of the union contract pertaining to Water Department employees are now handed by Jackson’s office or Poulin’s office. Also, the Water Board wants to have any new superintendent perform some duties of a union position — senior water plant operator — a direct violation of the union contract.

The DOH issued a “serious” violation in 2019 because the board didn’t take due diligence in maintenance and operations, officials said.

The second grand jury report stated a “lack of professionalism” by the board.

Currently, the Water Department is in violation of reduced pressure zone backflow device requirements, which puts the city at risk of being sued.

Gifford said the Water Board has a roughly $2 million annual budget, but he claims it has “overspent” by about $450,000.

Meanwhile, Jackson said the city has all the resources at its disposal to take over the water operations, including much better fiscal, legal and legislative means.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.

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