JOHNSTOWN — The City of Johnstown will remain under its “limited state of emergency” due to its water system operations at least until Feb. 1. While that declaration, made Tuesday by Mayor Amy Praught — presiding over her first Johnstown Common Council meeting — sounds serious, the order is primarily being used as a way for the city’s day-to-day water operations to keep being handled by the Department of Public Works, rather than the Water Board.
“It can just go away, or I can renew it,” Praught said after the meeting. “I’ll evaluate, and I’ll see.”
Praught issued the original declaration during the city’s Jan. 1 organizational meeting, when the city was facing the impending resignation of its senior water plant operator, which would have left the city without a qualified water filtration operator.
That declaration was supported by an emergency ordinance and resolution unanimously passed by the newly sworn-in Common Council, giving the mayor authority to “marshal all city resources and personnel as are necessary to keep and maintain the City’s Water Works in good operation and repair.”
With the order in place, the city was able to take control of the water operations from the Water Board. And with that arrangement, Senior Water Plant Operator John Denmark rescinded his resignation, in part, because the arrangement put the full weight of the city’s DPW behind the water operations, easing some of the burdens on Denmark, the water plant operator said. With Denmark remaining on the job, the city averted the immediate crisis of having no qualified operators, which could have resulted in a “boil water” notice for residents.
As it is, the city is looking to fill five vacant positions in the Water Department to help bring the staff to full strength. The city also needs to find a properly qualified assistant operator. The state requires that the city’s water system have a IA operator and a IIA assistant operator. Denmark has a IA certification, but the city does not have a qualified assistant.
City Engineer Christopher Vose said he has a handful of resumes to fill open laborer, motor equipment operator, heavy equipment operator and supervisor positions in the Water Department. Vose said he is hoping to bring aboard at least three new people by next month, filling all five by the spring. Finding a qualified assistant operator will take more time, and the city may rely on outside help for multiple years, Vose said after the meeting.
Praught said Johnstown is in talks with Schenectady about supplying water plant operations assistance. Primarily, Praught said, Schenectady could supply personnel that could spell Denmark on weekends and for vacations. When Denmark announced his plans to resign in December, he said burnout was part of the reason. Without a qualified assistant, Denmark said he hasn’t been able to take a vacation in more than three years.
“In the short term, we’ll probably just contract out for somebody to fill in for eight weeks a year and maybe once a month on a weekend,” Praught said on Tuesday.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy did not return a voicemail requesting confirmation of the talks with Johnstown left by The Leader-Herald on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Praught confirmed that the legal battle between the Water Board and the city continues, saying that she and new treasurer Thomas Herr have now been named in the suit.
COVID HITS CITY, POLICE FORCE
In other news regarding states of emergency, the Common Council’s agenda also included Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive order declaring a disaster emergency through Jan. 25 in the state as a result of the pandemic.
While Praught said the inclusion of the governor’s order in the city’s agenda was routine business, Praught also acknowledged that the city has recently been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. For instance, in the past 7 to 10 days, the city was without 13 of its 25 police officers because of the virus, the chief confirmed.
“If it would have continued, obviously, we would have had issues,” Police Chief David Gilbo said after the meeting. Gilbo said his force is now back at full strength. “It was separated to where we had a couple guys go out and other guys were able to fill in. It didn’t affect operations.”
Fulton County has seen an average of 195.1 cases per 100,000 over the last seven days, according to New York State Department of Health Data.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.