Searight residents upset with SCWA

Published 6:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2009

Emotions were running high Monday night as several residents from the Searight Community came before the South Crenshaw Water Authority Board with their concerns over the removal of two inoperable fire hydrants along Highway 29.

By the end of the lengthy meeting, the two sides had at least agreed there had been a great deal of miscommunication as well as a lack of communication on both parts.

Wayne Duke, who has property in Searight, said before the meeting that there is now about 1,000 feet of property containing homes that do not have access to any fire hydrants.

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Annette Marler, who was one of several people waiting outside the SCWA building before the meeting began, said that more than 50 people live in the Searight Community, an area containing at least three churches and a couple of small businesses. Marler said one of the fire hydrants that had been removed was located in front of her home.

“In Nov. of 2004, it was called in and reported that that fire hydrant needed repairs,” she said.

As the meeting began to get underway, more and more people began to fill the small board room.

“We’re not going to have a camera in here,” Board Chairman Jerry Stricklin said, referring to CBS Channel 8 News. “We’ve called our lawyer Johnny Nichols, and he said no cameras, or I’ll cancel this meeting.”

The CBS Channel 8 News anchor left the camera outside but returned for the meeting.

Wayne Duke first addressed the Board and asked for an agenda, but was not given a written one.

“There is no formal agenda—you are the agenda,” Board member Tom Compton explained.

“Do you buy water from us?” Board member Travis Johnson asked Duke.

“No, but my sister does, and I have a building there that needs fire protection,” Duke said.

“We’re not in the fire protection business,” Johnson said.

“All these fire hydrants you are seeing are being purchased and maintained by individuals,” Stricklin said. “Even my county commissioner, Ronnie Hudson, bought one and put it in front of his house, and he maintains it himself, and we told y’all the same thing.”

“Grants did not pay for these fire hydrants,” Stricklin continued. “When this system was getting off the ground, they were thinking there would be grant money for the fire protection—it did not come through. All the money was spent on installing the system.”

“We put them in –we purchased them, and they were a pretty good price in 1984 at $300 apiece—they’re about $2,100 apiece now,” Stricklin continued. “They get run over and get hit by cars… people don’t know how to turn them on and off—so as they went out, because of the cost of them, we would put flushers in them, so it was $350 versus $2,500 to keep the cost of water down.”

“This is not something that has just started—it’s been an ongoing thing,” he added. “We’ve got 600-plus miles of line on this system– most of it is 3-inch line—and it only produces 185 gallons of water a minute. That won’t even support fire department hoses.”

“We’re not being facetious, or anything—we’re trying to keep the cost of your water down,” Stricklin said.

“Well, the fire hydrants were removed and I heard about it, and I left messages here, and I finally got up with Mr. (Tom) Compton, and that’s the first I knew about it,” Searight resident Charlene Davis said.

Even Public Service Commissioner Jan Cook had been contacted by some Searight citizens about the fire hydrants and the fact that they were not working.

“I told her (Jan Cook) the same thing I’ve told you,” Stricklin said.

“We were just not aware of anything you’re talking about, and you don’t need to have an attitude about it; just remain calm with us, and tell us what’s going on,” Davis said.

“I ain’t got an attitude; I just want you to understand where we’re coming from with this,” Stricklin said, calmly.

“I don’t know if you could even get the parts for them now,” Tom Compton explained, when asked about it. “But as for the standards that we have for installing hydrants now, even if we could get parts, they would not meet those standards now…that’s part of the costs he’s talking about.”

“Does it cost more to dig them up and remove them?” Duke asked.

The question quickly switched back to the main thought on the citizens’ minds—the increase in homeowners’ insurance because of the lack of the fire hydrants.

“We are not in the fire protection business—that may be a hard statement, but that’s the truth,” Johnson said.

“Well, there are a lot of people in this county who don’t understand that,” Aubrey Wolfe, a Dozier volunteer firefighter, said.

Johnson asked the crowd how many got a reduction in their homeowners’ insurance because of having a working fire hydrant close to their homes, and the majority raised their hands.

Compton explained that the two fire hydrants in question had been put in place in the 1980s with ADECA funds in conjunction with rural development funds, some of which were federal and some from the state.

“We’d like to have a copy of the grant that was used to put in these fire hydrants,” Duke said. “The majority of the people living in Searight live at or below poverty level, so this could directly affect our homeowners’ insurance and prevent some people from obtaining coverage, and that’s the basic reason why we’re here.”

Duke also asked for a written copy of the agenda for the night’s meeting, a copy of the agenda for the last 10 meetings, financial reports, and a signed note as to where agendas were posted.

“We’d also like to know where all the money is going,” Duke said.

“When you see the report, you’ll know where all the money is going,” Johnson replied.

“We should have a letter explaining all this stuff,” Davis said.

“We’ve got 600 miles of line, and we’ve never had this problem before,” Johnson said.

Duke changed the subject back to the availability of the Board’s agendas and financial records.

“We have a right to your agendas and to see your financial statements,” he said.

“You can have everything you’ve asked for, but it’s not going to change any of our policies,” Johnson said.

“These people would just like to have had a notice saying the hydrants were going to be taken up,” Aubrey Wolfe said. “You have the addresses for sending out all the water bills, so you could have used the same addresses to send out notices that you were going to do this, and give them the option to either fix them or have them taken up.”

“You’re right, but since this is not a fire protection authority, we don’t have to send out that information because we’re not trying to be a fire protection authority in the first place,” Board member Jim Hogg said. “We try to provide the safest drinking water we can—these fire hydrants were put in for flushing, and as they tear up, we find a cheaper way to flush the lines rather than a $2,500 fire hydrant.”

“There are people on 2 or 3-inch lines who’d love to have a fire hydrant, but we can’t put one on it—and we can’t guarantee there’d be enough flow there to provide fire protection—if a fire truck gets on there, they could collapse our lines, and who’s going to be responsible for that?” Hogg asked. “We’re not in the fire protection business—we provide safe drinking water…I think if you’ll look, our rates are some of the cheapest rates around.”

“And if you get a grant, they’ll want you to raise your rates,” Hogg added. “Those grants aren’t free, and they don’t come without some kind of strings attached.”

Resident Ellen Joyner told the Board members that E-911 had told residents in 2004 that they had talked to the Water Authority members, and were told that the part was ordered for the fire hydrants in question.

“The issue to us is that we were told it was being worked on,” Joyner said. “911 told us they had talked to you and the part had been ordered.”

“They told you that—not us,” Johnson said.

“The issue to us was that it was being worked on, and we weren’t seeing it worked on; otherwise, I don’t have any problem with my water,” Joyner said.

“I apologize for any of those problems, but please don’t go through anyone else,” Stricklin said. “Call us if you have a question, and we’ll get back to you—we’re here to serve you, and if we made y’all mad, I apologize.”

“If everything comes back to fire protection, that’s not what we do,” Johnson reiterated.

“If you want the fire plug back, we’ll put it in wherever you want it, but we’re not going to be responsible for the upkeep of it,” Stricklin said.

“We’re not in the fire protection business, and that’s what it all comes back to,” Johnson said. “We provide safe drinking water.”

“You’re not concerned about the people, the people who don’t have water for their fire protection?” a Searight resident asked.

Board member Tom Compton explained that the reason the Water Authority is not a fire protection authority is because, from a legal standpoint, they would have to provide “X” amount of water to every customer for fire protection, “which we cannot do,” he said.

“If you want a fire hydrant, you’ll have to buy one, and we’ll put it in,” Johnson said.

“We can’t just pick and choose which community to put fire hydrants in,” Compton said. “That’s not fair to any other community that might want one, or to our other communities in Coffee and Covington counties either.”

Compton also explained the criteria involved with ISO ratings when it comes to homeowners’ insurance rates. In order to have lower homeowners’ insurance with the lower ISO ratings, the fire hydrant must: flow a certified amount; it must be on a four-inch or above main; the residence/building must be within a five-mile radius of a fire department, and it must be within 1,000 road feet of a hydrant.

The Water Authority approved at its Sept. 22 meeting for the two hydrants to be removed within the following month.

Also, according to the Dec. 22, 2008, South Crenshaw Water Authority minutes, it was recorded that “Searight residents are upset about the removal of fire hydrants in the Searight Community” because Compton had informed the Board of complaints by Wayne Duke and other residents.