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Water concerns addressed with Leetonia council

LEETONIA — Public Works Superintendent Ed Allen and Chief Operator Lisa Smith brought to village council several concerns, including the need to replace the water system monitoring program and the lack of funding for other necessary projects.

Allen explained to council the current system controlling the valves between Leetonia and Salem is more than 21 years old. If that system malfunctioned and became inoperable the village would lose water.

“Without (Supervisor Control and Data Acquisition) SCADA we could run out of water, the tower could go dry, the reservoir could go dry, so, it’s really more crucial today than it was when we put it in,” said Allen.

The water department is requesting both an update of the SCADA system and approval of a support agreement that would maintain the system after it’s installed. The cost of the new system is $16,010.

Smith said water plant employees also have issues with the passcodes that allow them to access the software and reset the alarms. While Smith was on vacation the old system had an alarm going off, which went unaddressed.

“I was on vacation, they called me on Monday in Las Vegas and it was Friday until someone came out to look at it … we had no way to go in and shut the alarm off,” said Smith.

While there was nothing wrong, there was no way to acknowledge the alarm in the old system, Smith said. The plant’s newer system gave them data informing employees there was nothing actually wrong and employees also physically looked at the area where the alarms indicated a problem.

Smith said those issues are why the department is asking for a system upgrade.

“The old one is unreliable,” said Smith, adding this need has been discussed since last fall.

Councilman James Pittman clarified the department has an old system that doesn’t work and a new system that is unusable because of old system defaults. Pittman verified the proposed upgrades will get rid of the old system entirely.

Smith also told Pittman the upgrade will allow the department to add the waste water operations to the new system eventually, as well as allow them to monitor the pumps and other parts of the system should the generator come on.

The new system would also set off alarms accompanied by cell phone notifications. Then if no one responds to the text messages department employees get calls. All of these improvements would eliminate the need for additional working hours for department employees.

Fiscal Officer Randy Chismar said that the capital water fund could handle the cost of project, however he advises against adding too many other projects in the near future.

“It might put a hit on replacing hydrants and valves and all that other stuff in the future but you could swing that this year,” said Chismar.

Pitman said he believes the upgrades are a necessary expense.

Recently, the current computerized system shut down for seven hours. With the new alarm system, one council member noted next time they would not go days without knowing the system was down.

“The old one went down and didn’t alarm us of anything, the new one didn’t necessarily determine a problem, so, we weren’t notified of it either,” said Smith.

Allen explained that there are two computers operating off the same system so if the old 21-year-old system goes down neither computer will work.

Additionally, the old system does not have a support agreement and charges about $700 for service calls, according to Smith. Allen said the new support agreement will include service calls, training and other necessary supports.

“It’s more than just a support agreement, its training and updates and everything else they do,” said Allen.

Council member Neal Bayless said although the upgrades will limit wish list items, it needs to be done soon. Still he suggested waiting till the end of July.

While the village currently has the funds to handle the upgrades, Chismar is concerned if something bad happens at the sewer plant there would be no balance.

Smith said that she has been working from the asset plan for the water system, which looks at what things need to be repaired and replaced to keep the system operating. Smith believes asset management needs to be done yearly and said if no one is doing the rate studies when asset management is done then the village is going to neglect seeing when funds are falling behind to maintain utilities.

“I can tell you in 2015 when they were done … they wanted a 47 percent increase in 2016 and it’s never been done until this year,” said Smith.

With a rate increase that just took effect in February, Bayless voiced concerns about how people in the village would react to increasing rates again.

While she is looking at the asset management plan, Smith said she is not updating the numbers between the asset management and rates.

“I’m not an accountant,” she said. “I’m not a finance person. I can tell you what needs done at the plant. I know where we need to put money in for operation and maintenance that we haven’t done at all. I know what needs to be done that hasn’t been addressed yet, but I can’t tell you what numbers go where and where they come (from),” said Smith.

The cost of having the rate study done is no longer free and for the water department it would cost about 25 percent of the village’s capital fund, according to Chismar. Instead Mayor Kevin Siembida asked if there was a way to adjust the asset management plan.

Discussions turned to whether completing all the projects on the asset management plan is being too aggressive right now due to the limited money the village has to work with in the water and sewer funds.

Siembida suggested working with the EPA to adjust the time frame for projects needing to be done.

“That is not how the EPA looks at it,” Smith said. “They look at what your rates (are) and what your percentage of your ability to pay is and if your percentage is too low, … if our rates are not high enough that is where they go against us.”

While Siembida said he is unaware of any court case that indicates the EPA has the power to dictate rates, Smith indicated if the village is not charging enough, the ability to get loans and grants can be affected.

Smith has brought several recommendations from the EPA to the attention of council, for instance Smith being the only certified operator for the plant is not recommended. Additionally, she has had an employee volunteer to help monitor back flow.

There also are 51 service connections a year which need surveyed to stay out of violation with the EPA.

Bayless said there is no money for additional employees and suggested to table some of it till a later date. It also was suggested Smith could approach the mayor and administrator about giving some of her duties to others due to her spending a minimum of 20 hours a week at the plant. Smith has mandatory hours she spends in the water distribution system and waste water plant. Smith noted these hours do not include paperwork, maintaining programs and meetings.

“I’m an operator, I’m telling you what needs done and what the cost of it is, I come to council and council is the legislative that makes those determinations or tells me, no, we are not going to do this,” said Smith.

The water system is not the only concern. The waste water plant has multiple broken pieces of equipment. Septic sludge was sitting at the bottom of the equalization portion of the plant as of the night of the meeting.

The village paid to get the digester emptied and due to recent rains, the digester needs emptied again, Smith said.

“That’s a sick plant, I’m doing my best,” said Smith “I don’t like to say ‘yes we just raise rates,’ but I can’t solve the problems that we have because there’s still no money there because we have been backed into a corner for five years, having not raised rates,”

Chismar said that while water funds have dropped $6,000, sewer operating revenues have increased by $16,000, water capital improvement has increased by $1,000 and sewer capital has increased by $3,000.

Siembida is emphasizing the need to pace what upgrades and other projects are being completed in order for funds to recover. But Smith said pursuing the issue with maintenance needs to be done sooner rather than later due to EPA regulations. Each time she fails to provide documentation or delays in her responses to mandated inspections and maintenance leads to an EPA citation for the village.

“I’m mandated to flush hydrants every year,” Smith said. “I’m mandated to do back flow. I’m mandated to do valve exercising. This meeting was to bring everyone up to date. There’s no easy solution for anything,”

Smith said while the village is not out of compliance with anything on the waste water side, she doesn’t want to see it get out of compliance.

“You’re taxing a system that’s 21 to 30 years old,” said Smith.

dgarner@mojonews.com

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