Council: City water workers say efficiency of the system at risk

April 08, 2011
Santa Paula City Council

City water workers warned the City Council that dwindling staff is tapping the efficiency of the system that could impact health, safety and the municipal pocketbook.

The council heard the comments at the April 4 meeting.

Water department employee Francisco Ramirez-Amazan said workers in the enterprise were first outvoted in taking a day’s furlough to help ease the financial strain being experienced by the city, and then learned that department member is targeted for layoff. Elimination of a water distribution worker would not ease the fiscal woes of the General Fund, said Amazan.

“Negotiations have been focused on balancing” the General Fund, but the water department is an enterprise fund from which, Amazan said, revenues or savings couldn’t legally be utilized outside the specific enterprise.

Although public safety is often stated as the council’s number one priority, he noted the water department also deals with such issues and is strongly monitored by the state Department of Health and must adhere to strict guidelines. And with worker cuts, “There’s no possible way to keep up with the maintenance” of department equipment, including inoperable valves.

Amazan handed out a list of known inoperable valves and noted, “You might find them near schools, near city hall or possibly near your homes.” Functioning valves can lessen the impacts of disaster and allow the window of opportunity for repair of inoperable outlets, which Amazan said takes a two-person team four days and requires digging to a depth of five feet. “No way our little crew could keep up with those... this is downright wrong, these are things we have control of” that must be maintained.

In addition, the department can no longer keep all fire hydrants operational. “Imagine a fire engine pulling up” and being unable to pump water from a hydrant, which occurred in recent months in the Virginia Terrace area when firefighters responded to a palm tree fire.

“Luckily, this was just a palm tree that burned down, but imagine if it was a school or other homes.... These are things we can prevent if we have the manpower.”

Flushing of lines, Amazan added, is also off schedule, and “chances are people are drinking stagnant water.” Amazan said further cuts to the water division would only worsen such operations and put the city at risk of fines imposed by the state oversight agency.

Sam Hutton, who started with the water enterprise in 1991, a year before the city purchased it, is the water division supervisor and chief water operator. “I refer to myself as the sacrificial lamb, as ultimately I am the one responsible” to the state Department of Health.

Hutton questioned why the city would further cut into the water department: “As the responsible person I need to know why, what possible difference this would make” to the city’s General Fund budget “when this person is fully funded by the water division and ratepayers.... Please give me something beyond” the concept of “shared pain... we have a state audit coming up this month and I don’t think shared pain” will satisfy inspectors if they find system shortfalls.

Hutton said an inspection under the circumstances could have negative impacts on the city’s operating permit. “As the responsible party for this system and as a concerned citizen I have to know why,” as do other residents, who question the cost savings of eliminating a customer fee paid position.

Councilman Rick Cook later requested that the issue be studied and returned to the council for discussion.

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