JOHNSTOWN – Johnstown Mayor Amy Praught on Thursday extended the limited state of emergency because of the city’s water system operations for a fifth month.
The emergency order, which was set to expire at the end of Friday, effectively keeps the city – rather than the Water Board – in control of the Water Department’s day-to-day operations. 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 John Denmark, which would have left the city without a qualified water filtration operator. That could have resulted in a boil-water notice in the city. Denmark agreed to stay on the job following the declaration.
On Thursday, Praught said she doesn’t see a way out of the current situation. She said she and city engineer Christopher Vose have worked with the Water Board to approve contracts and continued to keep it informed on day-to-day operations, including projects she said they are trying to keep on track. Those include running new water lines along state Route 30A near Ace Hardware, switching city water meter readers back to Neptune Technology Group models from Master Meter models. However, the mayor said the Water Board will not pay for these projects or for any employees, which is costing the city $40,000 a month that is coming from water rent funds left over from last year.
Praught pointed out, as she has in the past, that Denmark will leave his position if day-to-day operations are turned back over to the Water Board, which would leave the city without a IA water plant operator, which is required by the state, and immediately result in a boil-water notice. She said that even though the Board would be in charge of operations, the city would get in trouble, as well as accept any related fines.
“I could turn it back over to the Water Board and if they don’t have a IA operator, I could potentially in four to five business days have to go to a boil-water in my city, which could ruin businesses,” the city leader said. “That is not something that I will even entertain.”
The mayor said she is not presently aware of the status of the lawsuit between the board and the city because she tries to limit communications with their attorneys to avoid creating city expenses through attorney fees. She said she wants to move forward and a ballot referendum in November to bring the water department back officially under city control might be the only way. That would require a resolution approved by the board and then submitting the referendum to the board of elections by June to get it on the ballot.
“At this point, this is our problem,” Praught said. “We are not getting anywhere with the water board. They are a board that meets once a month, they are not a board that does its daily due diligence. They want to hire a superintendent, they haven’t, they want to, but that superintendent does not have to be a licensed operator. They just have to have water experience, which does not cover what the state requires you to cover. And what is happening is the state is saying, ‘The city of Johnstown, you’re responsible for this infrastructure, you own it, you’re responsible for the equipment, you’re responsible for the systems.’”