The North Bend Eagle

 

Disputed water leak leads to finger pointing

by Nathan Arneal
Published 12/9/15

A miscommunication three years ago led to a disagreement over a repair bill at the Dec. 2 North Bend City Council meeting. Voices remained calm, even though the phrase “see you in court” was uttered.

The repair bill in question stems from a water leak at 149 W 6th Street, the former Gail’s Thrift and Gift and Grandma’s Kitchen building, now empty on Highway 30.

When water was reported flowing down the highway in September, the city sent Brent Anderson, who at the time was PeopleService’s representative in North Bend, to take a look. PeopleService is contracted to maintain North Bend’s water and sewer systems.

Anderson said the leak was coming from 149 W 6th, a property owned by Tom Wolf. When Anderson told Wolf it would be Wolf’s responsibility to have the leak repaired, Wolf said the responsibility couldn’t be his because he had water service to that building shut off in 2012.

This is where the disagreement begins.

Wolf had leaks on that same line repaired in 2006 and 2012, each costing him about $2,000. After the 2012 repair, Wolf said he wasn’t getting enough rent out of the building to make the repairs worth it, so he asked Mullally Boys Plumbing to shut the water off.

Tom Mullally of Mullally Boys Plumbing currently sits on the city council.

“In 2012, I told Mullallys that I didn’t want any water to that building,” Wolf said at last Wednesday’s meeting. “We can’t get enough rent out of it to do it. So I said, ‘I don’t want any water. I don’t want any service.’ Period. End of conversation. Then all of a sudden, three years later, here comes some more water bubbling up.”

This is where the miscommunication occurred with varied meanings of the phrase “shut the water off.”

The water mains in North Bend are usually buried under the street. Private water lines branch off the main to serve individual buildings. Several feet down the private water line, usually under the sidewalk, is a shutoff valve called a curb stop. This valve can be accessed from street level, where a wrench is used to shut off the valve, thereby stopping water service to that location.

In 2012, when Wolf asked to have the water shut off, Mullally turned off the curb stop. This left the remainder of the line between the curb stop and main live. It also allows water service to be restarted relatively easy if the owner ever chooses to do so.

However, Wolf was under the impression that his request meant to disconnect the line completely, capping it at the main, a process referred to as “abandoning” a line. Abandoning a line to a still-standing structure is rarely done because its much more expensive to undo.

“I didn’t use the word ‘abandon,’ because I didn’t know that’s what you’re supposed to use,” Wolf said. “But I said, ‘I don’t want any water to that building. Period.’”

There was not only controversy in the fact that the leak existed at all, but in how it was repaired this fall.

When the leak sprung up in September and Wolf told Anderson he wouldn’t pay to have it repaired, Anderson referred it to the city, knowing it had to be fixed with winter approaching.

The city contracted Mullally Boys Plumbing to fix the leak. Tom Mullally said Anderson told him it would have to be dug up at the main. Both Anderson and Mullally knew that the curb stop was turned off in 2012, so they figured the leak had to be between the curb stop and the main.

It wasn’t.

When the street was dug up and the plumbers saw the line, it was discovered that the leak was coming from just inside the curb stop. As Mullally described it, a sleeve covering the valve was pushed down – possibly caused by vibrations from Highway 30 traffic – and the sleeve caused the curb stop valve to open by a fraction of an inch, allowing water to access the 2012 leak again. The curb stop was turned back off and the leak stopped.

Wolf pointed out that the leak could have been fixed by turning the curb stop without going through the time and expense of digging up the highway.

Duane Grashorn, the regional manager for PeopleService, attended the Nov. 17 council meeting. At that time he said that in all his decades of experience, he had never seen or heard of a curb stop opening on its own. Mullally agreed, and said prior knowledge that the curb stop had been shut off was the reason the simplest solution wasn’t tried first.

“If Brent wasn’t involved in it and we weren’t involved in it, anyone with no knowledge of it probably would have tried to turn the (curb stop) valve off first,” Mullally said. “But since (Anderson) had knowledge that the valve was supposed to be off— I mean, they just don’t turn on. I hadn’t seen that before, but that’s what happened.”

Wolf said the city, PeopleService and Mullally Boys were all negligent in tearing up the street before trying the curb stop valve.

“You’d think PeoplesService, that would have been the first thing they’d have done, take that tool and try to turn the shutoff off,” Wolf said. “It would have stopped it. But no, the street gets torn up and here we come with another $2,200 bill. I just don’t think that it’s our responsibility at all when trained professionals in that business, all they have to do is turn that shutoff valve and it would have been the end of it.”

Councilman Tim Blackmon said he could empathise with Wolf.

“Just the fact that somebody pays that much money for the same thing over and over, and it comes back again?” Blackmon said. “If that was me, I’d be livid.”
However, there was still disagreement on who should be responsible for the repair bill.

“There was a heck of a lot of mistakes,” Blackmon said, “but I guess in that situation I don’t see how the city is responsible for that.”

City clerk Theresa Busse said everyone in North Bend is handled the same. Individual property owners are responsible for leaks or repairs on their service lines. If they refuse to fix a leak, the city hires a plumber to fix it and bills the property owner. If the bill is not paid, a lien is placed on the property.

“The city, or PeopleService, isn’t responsible for anybody’s personal leak,” Busse told Wolf. “It’s unfortunate that you thought it was abandoned when it was just shut off, but you are responsible for that leak, and you took no responsibility. You could have hired any plumber you wanted to go out and turn that (valve) and they would have turned it, but you didn’t. You left it in the city’s hands.”

“Well,” Wolf calmly said, “I guess maybe we’ll have to argue this out in court.”

“I would go in a second because I think you’re wrong,” Busse replied.

Council president Kevin Ferguson, who was running the meeting in mayor Jeff Kluthe’s absence, brought the discussion to a close. No formal action was taken by the council.

“Well, we’ve heard from PeopleService and we’ve heard from Tom (Wolf),” Ferguson said. “Maybe when Jeff (Kluthe) gets back we’ll kick it around. It’s not a pretty situation, and we’re not trying to create enemies here.”

In other council business:

• Annual departmental appointments were made as follows, remaining mostly the same as 2015:
City maintenance supervisor: Larry Hilliard. City clerk, treasurer, zoning administrator and flood plain administrator: Theresa Busse. Health and Safety: Tom Mullally. Pool and Park: Emily Kirschenmann. Auditorium: Kevin Ferguson. Water and Sewer: Tim Blackmon. Council President: Ferguson. Street superintendent: Troy Johnston of JEO Consulting. City engineer: JEO Consulting.

 

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