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THE GREAT UTILITY DISASTER

In a nutshell, the utility commission is still befuddled when it comes to understanding or controlling the financial expenditures of the city’s water and sewer utilities, and about the serious condition of the city’s water and sewer infrastructure. However, some images are slowly emerging from the mist. The sewer and water infrastructure is suffering from several years of neglect, and there are insufficient funds to do the needed repairs. The current utility commission has been dragging its feet on addressing the problems. The department has only $351,702 in the water replacement fund, and $862,823 in the sewer replacement fund, both of which are totally inadequate for the needed repairs.

The Host Drive and the Dodge Street water towers require in excess of a million dollars to repair a rusted center support ring, reline the inner surface of the tanks, and repair the holes and damage done by the mounting of antennas on the water towers, including resealing and repainting the water tower’s exterior. Much of this repair should have been planned and carried out five years ago, following the last inspection. Also, the hazardous ‘spaghetti method’ of antenna wiring needs to be rewired. A guard railing ring needs to be added to the water tower for antenna mounting, to prevent a recurrence of the damage to the tank that the current antenna mounting method caused.

In addition, the utility commission will need to replace a multimillion dollar, thirty-one-year-old sewer ring (which had a twenty-year life expectancy), and evaluate the condition of the rest of the sewer and water infrastructures. Fortunately, although in serious need of repair, the current system is still functioning and for now remains adequate for the city’s immediate needs. Under the current circumstances, without a director, the sewer and water department personnel are doing an exceptionally good job. Although the utility commission had the authority, it failed to do its job and acted only as a figure heads under Dan Winkler, who ran, planned and controlled everything within the sewer and water departments.

In doing so, Winkler operated the city’s utilities without a budget, and over last five years he did an incompetent job by not maintaining and replacing the aging and failing infrastructure. He also failed to set aside adequate replacement funds for the water or sewer departments to either do needed repairs, or replace aging equipment when it becomes needed. When Mr. Winkler inherited the sewer department from the city there was three million dollars in the sewer equipment replacement fund. In last Thursday’s meeting of the utility commission the seriousness of the situation, and the inadequacy of money became apparent.

The Utility Commission has not started its 2017 budget; it was leaving that for the yet to be hired new Utility Director. This seems strange because last year for the first time the utility department actually had a budget, but on questioning, the utility commission said that they had not done the budget but had hired an outside firm to do it for them. So although the utility commission had paid someone to do a budget for it, and had purchased software for the budget so items could be tracked against the budget, no one was trained or cared enough to see that the software was used, or that the financial tracking of budget expenses was being done.

Despite the serious need for repairs to the city’s sewer and water infrastructures and the lack of funds the utility commission, fearing a hostile resident response to the sewer rate hike, has elected to delay another increase in the sewer portion of the water and sewer bill. The utility commission will have to put a levy on the water bill to repay the money that they will need to borrow to do the repairs. Bad leadership has not only exacerbated infrastructure problems, it has violated the public’s trust and generated employee problems. So Mr. Winkler’s term of service has left the utility department broke, and burdened with broken down equipment and infrastructure.
Dan Winkler retired. He’s doing just fine.

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