JOHNSTOWN — The strained relationship between Johnstown City Hall and the city’s Water Board located just next door, along with the array of issues facing the city’s Water Department, are nothing new.
The city has twice brought referendums to city voters — in 2015 and 2020 — to abolish the Water Board, which were both voted down. Former Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown assembled a grand jury for a three-month investigation in 2019 to hear complaints between the two elected bodies.
In September 2020, state district engineer Chris Demme informed the city it needed to take “immediate action” to hire properly certified assistant water operators, based on a November 2019 inspection. Demme’s report was obtained by The Leader-Herald in December 2021.
In September 2020, former city treasurer Mike Gifford seized control of two bank accounts containing $4.2 million in water revenue, according to current Water Board president Mike Capparello. On Dec. 30, 2020, the Water Board filed paperwork to sue then-Mayor Vernon Jackson and Gifford in state Supreme Court over alleged violations of the City Charter, according to a Feb. 6, 2021 Leader-Herald report. That case is ongoing. Then, in March of last year, state comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released a local government audit criticizing the city’s record keeping and filing of financial reports, in part connected to the Water Department.
Much of this happened before or just as Capparello was becoming board president in August 2020. He only joined the board in the fall of 2019. All of it happened before current Mayor Amy Praught took office this past January, and she was only on the Common Council from January 2020 to May 2021. However, the most recent actions are a new chapter in the back-and-forth. For the nearly five months Praught’s been in office, the city — rather than the Water Board — has operated the Water Department day-to-day because of a water state of emergency the mayor issued Jan. 1.
According to senior water plant operator John Denmark, what’s really gotten to Praught and some council members is the state saying it recognizes the city as the authority of the water systems, not the Water Board — despite the section of the City Charter spelling out that the board is a separate, elected body. Denmark said the city has to take action because it’s responsible for violations or anything involving the systems.
In a story published in the May 13 Leader-Herald, Praught addressed the emergency. She said she doesn’t see a way out of the current situation, especially because senior water plant operator John Denmark only rescinded his resignation letter — submitted at the Water Board’s Dec. 13 meeting — on the condition that the Water Department’s day-to-day operations not be returned to the Water Board. Without Denmark, a IA operator, the city would not have the required properly qualified water plant operators, as laid out by Demme in the September 2020 report stating the Johnstown water system “requires that the minimum grade water operator and assistant operator for this system hold current IA and IIA water operator certifications respectively.” That lack would quickly lead to a boil-water notice, Praught has said previously.
Capparello said Sunday, upon Denmark notifying the board of his impending resignation, the board began working with the state to find a resolution. Denmark confirmed he brought several potential operators and contract operators, provided by outside companies, on tours of the city’s water facilities in December and showed them what he does on a daily basis. Capparello said he had a proposal ready from one company to provide the four properly certified water operators — two IA and two IIA — for one year at an hourly rate for the first 90 days, then a total of roughly $540,000 for salary, travel benefits and so on, a number provided by Denmark. However, the company spoke to Demme and learned the state recognizes the city, not the Water Board, as the authority over the water systems. So, because of that, Capparello said he brought the proposal to Jackson in the closing days of 2021.
The water board president said simply, “They rejected my proposal.”
Now, Capparello points to the contract the city signed two months ago with JCF Water Consulting in Victory Mills to provide a IIA operator for roughly a year for a $1,000 monthly retainer, a $95 hourly rate at a minimum of four hours of weekend and weekday coverage — so Denmark gets weekly time off and can take vacations, and $160 per hour for emergency calls. Capparello saw similarities in the contract he proposed to Jackson and the one Praught signed with JCF.
“They’re doing an hourly rate $95 to $100 an hour. But, they rejected my proposal that I got from the contractor if John Denmark was to leave,” he said.
Capparello also sent a text message to Jackson on his last day as mayor trying to address the Denmark’s then-impending.
He said his text addressed, as he sees it, the city’s moves to take control of the Water Department during Jackson’s time in office, leading to the Water Board’s lawsuit. Capparello said it goes on to say that the city must continue to operate the water systems because of Denmark’s “sudden departure … and the potential impact on public health and safety.” He also the said the city should continue operating the systems until the state Supreme Court decision is delivered because of the state’s decision on who runs the water systems. He also agreed to a plan Jackson put forward in December to pay the city engineer and assistant city engineer a stipend to oversee operations in the interim.
“That’s what I sent to him on Dec. 31, and Amy Praught took office Jan. 1, so it’s not like the Water Board has not tried to work with the city,” Capparello said. “We have bent over backwards.”
Praught said the city of roughly 8,000 with a budget of $15 million doesn’t have the approximately $500,000 to allocate to paying contractors before even getting to day-to-day operation costs. She referenced five outstanding state violations against the city Water Department as priorities for funds rather than hiring four contractors to come in at that price, especially when Denmark will stay as long as the Water Board is not in charge of the department’s day to day.
“When I say, half a million, that’s to cover their contract, it actually [would] be $1 million, probably, because you’d have to pay for everything else…there’s other stuff involved in their budget,” Praught said. “So, does that make sense? I mean, literally, does that make sense? No, it doesn’t.”
When it comes to paying the JCF operator, disagreement continues over who should foot the bill. Capparello questioned why the Water Board should pay the bill when the city approved the contract, not the board.
Another reason Capparello said the board won’t pay the contractor or employees recently hired by the city is related to the collective bargaining agreement between the city and employees that went into effect in 2020. According to the board president, the mayor, the union and representatives of the employees’ union, including Water Department employees, met without anyone from the Water Board of the labor relations lawyer. Capparello said before that the Water Board had someone, usually the department superintendent, sign department employee timesheets. They knew what employees were doing day to day, but that was no longer the case.
Denmark said the board was left out because it had been cutting operator trainee positions in recent years, which was playing a role in the lack of qualified operators for the city. The water plant head said, once the new CBA was signed, positions were added back. Praught has spoken recently about a recent civil service exam that was given. Denmark said he is currently training the person who got the highest score of that group.
Capparello also said the communication about the day-to-day operations has decreased noticeably in recent months as the board only receives written reports stating what is being done, the cost and what it is preventing. Praught said the last administration and the board had no communication. However, she said City Engineer Christopher Vose now meets with the board on a regular basis and provides weekly reports. The mayor said she speaks to the Water Board clerk almost daily.
An additional area of disagreement is who is responsible for the progression of projects, such as the watermain replacement on Route 30A and the recently approved project to switch city water meter reader’s back to Neptune Technology Group models from Master Meter. Capparello said the Water Board had already but in requests for bonds to do some of these projects last fall, some even earlier.
“Their finalizing everything we’ve done, so it’s not like she’s some savior or anything [for] doing all this,” Capparello said, referring to Praught. “If we don’t sign off and pay for this stuff, those projects aren’t going to get done.”
Praught said Vose has been going to the Water Board and pressing upon them to pay for these projects. She also said, however, that these projects have been needed for years, some a decade or more, and now the cost is significantly higher.
One thing Capparello and Praught agree on is that former treasurer Gifford was a roadblock. Praught said she doesn’t believe Gifford should have ever taken the two bank accounts out of the Water Board’s name. She and current treasurer Thomas Herr are also working through bond requests and other financial documents to deliver three years of overdue annual reports to the state that were left behind when Gifford resigned last fall. Capparello points to Gifford not following through on bond requests because of overdue annual reports as standing in the way of getting some of these projects going.
While Capparello pointed to bond requests, Praught claimed the Water Board had the fund to pay for some projects and equipment upgrades without waiting on bonds. She also is frustrated with the board that she continues to say is not qualified to oversee the water systems, and cannot manage the day-to-day operations while meeting once a month. Denmark said the board members don’t know a whole lot about water infrastructure. The city is in the works to bring forward a third referendum to officially take control of the Water Department and get it on the ballot this November.
“It’s amazing that this is what we’re dealing with. So, we will be in a bad situation if, come November, we don’t win this referendum,” Praught said. “And, if we don’t, the taxpayers are going to end up having to pay the penalty for the ineptitude of the Water Board. That’s all there is to it.”
Denmark is also at the center of all of this. He told The Leader-Herald in December that he was resigning, in part, for his health. He said Sunday that when he saw his doctor then to get a check up, including on his heart, his doctor said, “there’s a silent issue affecting you.” He immediately knew it was work. But, since the city took over the day-to-day operations, he said that has been gradually fading. He said his health has gotten better and the work environment is better, too.