At a special meeting Thursday afternoon, called hastily by the Fredonia Village Board of Trustees, Mayor Stephen Keefe announced payment for an unexpected purchase of water from the City of Dunkirk must be authorized - to the tune of $99,000.
Two weeks ago, the board learned the water plant had been purchasing large amounts of water since July on behalf of the village. The board has been holding lengthy, closed-door executive sessions before and after board meetings since it learned of the expenditures.
Over the summer, staff at the OBSERVER asked Keefe and Trustee Joseph Cerrie about rumors the village was purchasing large amounts of water from Dunkirk. At that time, Cerrie said he'd spoken with Rob Lancaster, supervisor of the filtration plant, who assured him no unusual purchases were being made other than to cover incidentals such as water main breaks like one which occurred on Newton Street at that time, and a leak discovered at the college which resulted in an unusual purchase. When asked on Thursday, Cerrie stood by his comments and said, "I can't micromanage this department. ... When I called and asked, I believed what I was told."
OBSERVER Photo by Shirley Pulawski
Water Filtration Plant Supervisor Rob Lancaster, seen in background, resigned his position effective Dec. 29 at Thursday’s special meeting, when an unexpected $99,000 total in water bills from the City of Dunkirk was announced by Village Mayor Stephen Keefe. The bills were for water purchases from July through part of October and only discovered by the board two weeks ago Lancaster told the board the village was making minimal purchases from Dunkirk.
This summer, Keefe told the OBSERVER he and other board members were focused on the reservoir water levels, believing reaching a designated low level was the main trigger for turning on a supply from Dunkirk. Keefe and others said they believed as long as the reservoir levels were maintained above a designated emergency level, water purchases would not be made. While water levels dropped by 45 inches over the summer, the emergency level was not reached. According to Keefe, "Rob told me he'd let us know when to panic."
OBSERVER staff also reached out to Lancaster during the summer. He said purchasing Dunkirk water didn't happen very often. "We only do it occasionally. It's not like it's every day or anything," he said. He repeated the comment Thursday in a phone call after the meeting, but added, "It may have been every other day."
"Lack of communication" was cited as a reason for the surprise, but Keefe added, "This meeting is premature. ... We're still investigating. ... I'm not sure all of my questions have been answered yet."
Lancaster has worked at the plant for 35 years and submitted his resignation, effective Dec. 29. The board accepted his resignation Thursday at the special meeting. Lancaster was present at the meeting but did not comment.
When asked how the board made the discovery and why the large expenditures were only recently made known, Village Administrator Rick St. George said utility bills are paid "as a matter of course" and are generally "not scrutinized the way other bills are." St. George said when a large bill became known to him early this month, he immediately questioned the expenses and contacted the board.
According to St. George, the bills for July, August and September totaled about $80,000. St. George called the City of Dunkirk water treatment plant to obtain charges for the month of October, which brought the total up to $99,000.
According to Cerrie, the most the village ever spends on water purchases from Dunkirk is about $10,000 annually. The amount included in the 2012 village budget was $5,000.
During Thursday's call to Lancaster, he told the OBSERVER many factors contributed to the high amounts of water purchased from Dunkirk. "Saying (issues) snowballed over a period of time is a good way to describe it."
He said a list of problems grew over the summer, from filters clogging with algae and bacteria, possibly due to heat and drought, which forced the filters to be washed after 10 to 25 hours of service instead of every 150 hours. That problem lasted for about two months, while other problems arose, including an intermittent mechanical problem at the Webster Road tower, contractors flushing lines at the college and using large amounts of water without alerting him or the town, drought and other issues.
"I was running myself ragged," because of the many issues over the summer, Lancaster said. "I was spending time at the plant and at the tower and getting calls in the middle of the night," he explained. "I've never seen anything like it in 30 years."
Lancaster also said communication was an issue.
"I was focused on making sure people had water," he said, and he wasn't watching the billing aspect, but the mechanical and operational issues. "There should have been more communication and I take full responsibility for that," he said.
In a statement, Keefe said, "The water plant supervisor is working on a comprehensive plan to avoid similar situations in the future. He does realize that clear, honest communication with the village administrator and the board of trustees is of paramount importance."
The board passed a resolution to take $95,000 out of the water fund reserves to cover the unexpected expense. The amount is about one third of the total water fund reserve. Money for the water filtration plant cannot be taken out of the village's general fund, St. George explained.
Keefe also said the board is researching past resolutions related to who can make decisions regarding when the water connection from Dunkirk is turned on. He said the board is also planning to implement a resolution to make sure the board and village administrator are alerted every time a purchase is made. The resolution may include details regarding who can make a decision to purchase water and under what conditions if a clear resolution was not made in the past.
"This is a tragic situation for the village administrator and elected officials after the difficult budgetary process in which necessary items were put on hold to ensure a very frugal budget," Keefe said. "This kind of expenditure, without prior knowledge, is unacceptable."
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