The state Department of Health informed the city of Johnstown more than a year ago that the municipality needed to take “immediate action” to hire a properly certified assistant water operator.
That mandate was spelled out in a Sept. 23, 2020, report, written by state district engineer Chris Demme, and obtained by The Daily Gazette. The report showcases — in plain terms — how the city and its Water Board have failed to fix a health concern that they have known about for at least a year. It’s a situation now compounded by Senior Water Plant Operator John Denmark’s resignation — effective at the end of the year, which will leave the city without a qualified operator and no plan for finding a long-term replacement.
Demme’s report, based on an inspection of the city’s public water supply carried out Nov. 8-14, 2019, included a violation for “failure to provide a properly certified assistant water operator.”
The report explains that the city’s water supply is a Grade 1A system with water filtration facilities designed to treat more than 2.5 million gallons a day. Such a system “requires that the minimum grade water operator and assistant operator for this system hold current IA and IIA water operator certifications respectively.”
However, the report notes that Denmark was the only operator with a IA grade certification, while the second operator had a D grade. certification.
“Mr. Denmark is a highly qualified and experienced, properly certified water operator. However, the city does not have a properly certified assistant water operator,” the report reads. “This is a violation of Subpart 5-4.2 of New York State Sanitary Code.”
The report also names three applicants for water operator certification, but all three applications were incomplete, according to the report. Water Board President Mike Capparello confirmed Tuesday that none of the applicants listed in the report passed the certification test.
Capparello said he has reached out to three properly certified operators to replace Denmark, but no one has been interested in the job. He said the lack of interest and a lack of qualified operators in general is exactly why the Water Board hasn’t been able to find a qualified assistant since the prior senior operator left in 2019.
“It’s like putting your hand in the cookie jar for a cookie and there isn’t a cookie there,” Capparello said.
He said he is working on finding a temporary replacement to bridge the gap between Denmark and a permanent replacement, but no agreement has been finalized. Denmark is set to resign in 10 days.
For its part, the city has largely shirked the responsibility. Mayor Vernon Jackson said, the matter needs to be handled by the Water Board, and Council Member-At-Large Craig Talarico said, “the city’s hands were tied,” by the city’s charter. The charter says, “There shall be a Water Department, which shall be under the direction and control of the Johnstown Water Board.”
However, Jackson, Mayor-elect Amy Praught and Capparello have all since discussed the plant operator matter together with the state after initially having separate conversations, according to Capparello.
On a separate issue, in another sign of compromise, the city and the Water Board have agreed to a solution that could potentially speed up payment for the necessary Cork Center Reservoir Dam renovations. According to Denmark, the state has deemed the dam to be in “unsound and fair condition,” meaning it should hold back the 150 million gallons of water he said lie beyond it under normal conditions, but extreme weather could cause a failure. That prevents the city from acquiring flood insurance for residents who live downstream from the dam — putting homes near the Kecks Center Creek down to Fonda at risk, according to Denmark.
The city and the Water Board recently agreed to split up a now $11,455,000 bond request to pay for the city and Water Department’s needs, according to City Treasurer Thomas Herr. He said the city would be seeking a roughly $7.2 million bond request to cover the Water Department’s needs, which include the dam rehabilitation, and a second bond covering the city’s needs. Herr also said the water department’s bond could be split into additional bonds to cover the two remaining phases of the Cork Center rehabilitation project.
“So, instead of selling all that one amount, breaking it down maybe it will entice the investors,” Herr said.
Capparello said the remaining estimate on the Cork Center project was roughly $4.2 million. The second phase, paid for with about $690,000, would address valves and remote operators for inlet and outlet works, among other fixes, while the third phase would fix the spillway to address structural deficiencies. Capparello said the Water Department would use the remaining $3 million left after the $4.2 million dam repair to pay for additional upgrades to the water system, such as replacing water meters.
ACCESSING THE FUNDS
But, regardless of the idea to split the bond request into multiple bonds, the funding remains on hold because — according to Herr — the city basically has no credit rating to speak of. That’s a result of previous treasurer Mike Gifford failing to file necessary financial reports from 2018 through 2020, something the city was criticized for by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli in March.
Herr said he was working with an accounting firm to gather the necessary information so the city could submit the missing reports and boost its credit rating. However, the process is slowed by city leaders remaining locked out of accounting software following Gifford’s early departure at the end of September — meaning they were still paying most bills manually, excluding payroll, according to Herr. He said the city was working with a new vendor to bring in a different system, but he estimated that it won’t be in place until at least February.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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