County tables takeover, pushes Maricopa to get along with water district

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Don't call it a hydrant. MCDWID's system blow-off equipment has been a point of debate.

Maricopa was told to try harder.

City Hall took its issues with Maricopa Consolidated Domestic Water Improvement District to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday hoping for a takeover of the water district. After hearing from representatives of the City and the water board, three of the supervisors were not convinced.

The supervisors voted, 3-2, to table the issue after two-and-a-half hours of testimony.

“I think what we’ve got is workers at the district level working with workers at the city level, and they’re doing a great job. Problem is, top management at the district and top management at the City are not communicating,” Vice Chair Pete Rios (D-District 1) said. “That stuff that the workers are doing needs to flow up.”

The City and the district gave conflicting accounts of the situation. The City brought the mayor, vice mayor, city manager, attorney, fire chief and assistant fire chief. MCDWID brought its new chairman, treasurer, engineer and attorney.

THE IGA

At the center of testimony was an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) the City had with Maricopa Domestic before it merged with New Saddleback Vista DWID in 2017 and became Maricopa Consolidated.

With Maricopa Fire/Medical Department expressing concerns that MCDWID’s system could not be counted on for adequate flow to fight fires, the City began looking for ways to bring the district’s infrastructure up to par with other subdivisions, in other words taking over the district.

City Manager Ricky Horst presented some of the City’s plan to the water board in February. That would have ended the DWID as a taxing district, locked in water rates for current customers, retired the district’s debt and paid Global Water to manage the system.

Instead of sparking interest, Horst’s presentation caused fury on the board after he left the room.

“We’re willing to work with the City, but we don’t want them to come and be a bully to us as Mr. Rick Horst was when he attended our meeting,” MCDWID Secretary/Treasurer Lucia Rodriguez told the supervisors.

Vice Mayor Nancy Smith, wife of Supervisors’ Chairman Anthony Smith (R-District 4), countered she has never seen Horst act like a bully. She said it may have been a problem of perception – and a shock factor, as well.

In June, the water district told the City it was terminating the IGA. It proposed a new agreement that dropped any reference to fire hydrants. According to a City letter to the supervisors, the water board also said the 2017 IGA “was never processed properly, that the IGA was inadequate and allowed the City to take advantage of Maricopa Domestic resources without responsibility of equipment damage during use or reporting of any usage to Maricopa Domestic.”

In July, the effort to create a new IGA started and stopped. The City found the district’s provisions untenable without fire flow testing. The water district has repeatedly said it is not a fire district. Though its fire hydrants have been used for fire suppression over the years, it refers to them as system blow-off equipment.

The board resisted turning over its system to the City.

“I think everything came to a screeching halt when our perception was that the city manager tied the IGA to the acquisition of the system,” said engineer William Collings, who contracts with MCDWID.

Maricopa Consolidated DWID has been sparring with the City of Maricopa over the reliability of its infrastructure.

THE EDDIE FACTOR

Fire Marshal Eddie Rodriguez

Though not in attendance, Rodriguez’s husband, Eddie, became a focal point and even a deciding factor for some of the supervisors.

Eddie Rodriguez is fire marshal for MFMD and was an early fire chief.

His wife and water district Field Operator Gilbert Sanchez both brought his expertise into the conversation.

“As a resident of the Heritage District, we welcome the commercial. We work and we want to feel secure,” Lucia Rodriguez said. “I don’t think my husband would have us living there, continue his parents living there if we were in any kind of danger fire-safety-wise.”

Sanchez, who described his job as making sure the water is safe to drink, said he meets with Eddie Rodriguez from time to time.

MFMD Chief Brady Leffler confirmed Rodriguez’s value, but said the issues go beyond that.

“He is not only our full-time employee but probably our longest employee. And an excellent, excellent fire marshal,” Leffler said. “I know that he does reach out and talk with representatives of the water district, primarily on new construction-type things, and the city does as well. But on a routine basis, we do not get the information that they’re talking about.”

But Rios and Miller felt Eddie Rodriguez’s relationship with the water district was a sign the two entities could work together without county interference.

HEY, KIDS

While one supervisor, Stephen Miller (R-District 2), accused the City of engaging in “progressivism” in its approach to the problem, two others tried to parent the squabbling parties.

Mike Goodman (R-District 3) said the City and water board need to work harder at communication, but implied if there is no improvement the county may look at the takeover proposal again.

Rios pointed a finger at the water board.

“You’re playing bad boy with the City,” he said. “Quit it.”

Todd House (R-District 5), who serves on a fire district board, joined Anthony Smith in voting against tabling the question.

Anthony Smith was unhappy with attitudes at the meeting.

Smith, a former mayor of Maricopa, was virtually rapping knuckles, saying the water board’s attorney was being “insulting” when he inferred the fire department leadership was lying and calling water board Chairman Chris Giles disrespectful in his attitude toward the supervisors.

City Councilmember Rich Vitiello complained he had been called a racist and a bully by district members, one of whom tried to chide him as he addressed the supervisors.

“I work for the city. These are my constituents,” Vitiello said. “We care about every citizen in this city.”

A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

The public safety stuff they’re putting on is stupid.

Mayor Christian Price said the City took the problem to the county because it could not come to any other solution for guaranteeing fire safety for residents and businesses in the water district boundaries.

“We have had a long-standing relationship with the Maricopa Consolidated Water District in the City of Maricopa, and we were able to work really well together,” Price said. “But between 2017 and 2019 essentially, something changed. And I’m not quite sure I can pinpoint or put my finger on it.”

He said a number of safety issues kept councilmembers up at night, including the question of whether water supply would exist at any given hydrant if a fire occurred. Not having the data, he said, kept the city fire department from doing its job.

Brad Pitassi. Photo by Kyle Norby

Brad Pitassi, assistant chief with MFMD, explained the five-minute process the department uses to inspect hydrants and described the National Fire Protection Association standards followed by the department, including multiple layers of backup plans, both for fire suppression and firefighter safety.

MFMD has often made an example of March 2019 house fire in the Heritage District for which MFMD could not find a working hydrant. But the first two hydrants tried by the department were part of Ames Construction’s work on the overpass and were out of service. Pitassi acknowledged there was miscommunication between the company and the City.

“But what we don’t acknowledge, and we don’t accept, is that the next closest hydrant to that fire only produced 250 gallons per minute,” he said. “NFPA, for the safety of firefighters, requires 300 gallons per minute and a combined two hose lines; 250 doesn’t cut it. We couldn’t go into that structure if we had to.”

Chief Brady Leffer in his office. Photo by Kyle Norby

MFMD Chief Brady Leffler said his department “worked long and hard” with Global Water to create a robust system that allows firefighters access to the hydrants, with GWR doing most of the checking. That relationship has a collaborative IGA.

MFMD has not been able to create a similar pact with MCDWID. Collings said the proposal put too much of the burden of fire flow datakeeping on the district. Supervisor House said it is the responsibility of the water district to provide that information.

The lack of communication between the district and City puts Maricopa between a rock and a hard place, Price said. He added it is difficult to get together on an IGA if they can’t agree on a fire code.

Leffler said MCDWID responded to its proposed IGA by returning to the original IGA with some changes to the terminology. The chief said that was unacceptable and did not meet NFPA standards.

“We did cut off negotiations because it was clear to us that that was not going to happen,” Leffler said, “We were not going to change anything.

“We have lost confidence in that water system.”

When MCDWID legal counsel Stephen Cooper dismissed the fire department’s concerns as just “scary stories,” Anthony Smith said he found the comment insulting.

But the district doubled down on its assessment of MFMD’s information. “If you need the water, go get it,” Giles said. “The public safety stuff they’re putting on is stupid.”

Giles only recently became chairman of the water board. Former Chairman Dean Scott was the only board member to accept an invitation to meet with the city council in November. Subsequently, he was asked to resign.

Pitassi said his department has to be able to “test and flow hydrants unannounced without observers there watching what we’re doing because they’re not there at 3 o’clock in the morning when these hydrants are being tapped for these house fires like the one that happened in 2019.”

But Collings said the district must report all water usage to the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“If it’s done independently in the middle of the night, we have no idea,” the civil engineer said. “That doesn’t seem to be a concern of some of the city members.”

Collings also said it was never clear what data was sought by the fire department. He did provide flow rate data to the supervisors, saying the district’s conservative assumptions had not been challenged.

Supervisor Miller was satisfied with the numbers. “There is no reason to think that your information is inaccurate or misleading,” he told Collings. “You do have a seal on every one of those pages.”

BUSINESS RELATIONS

Miller said any developer coming into the area would have done their research and known what kind of water service they were getting.

In the Nov. 2 letter from the City to supervisors, Horst cited the experience of Thompson Thrift, developers of Sonoran Creek Marketplace with Sprouts, which said it received a letter from MCDWID in July 2019 stating the district would provide the necessary fire flow as a courtesy and “assumes no liability for the installation of such facilities and informing them the City is not authorized to review and approve elements of the plans for the system even though some of the system will be in City right of ways.”

MCDWID chose a hydrant on the property for a flow test, resulting in a gallons-per-minute rate of 4,300. When a Thompson Thrift representative tested another hydrant 20 minutes later, however, the GPM was only 1,960, Horst wrote.

As an employee of Kooline Plumbing, Vitiello said the company had difficulty getting documents back for work on Maricopa Animal Hospital, which was waiting for its water meter. When he called to inquire about it, he was told it had been mislaid.

“We have a manager answering budget questions when the board can’t answer them,” Vitiello said. “And we’re the liars? We’re the ones that are sitting here not telling the truth?”

Collings said the system can provide 1,500 GPM for three hours and has the system pumping capacity of over 5,000 GPM, meeting the standards of the NFPA. Sanchez said the fire marshal has witnessed many of the flow tests showing those numbers.

“It still seems to me that it’s the wrong thing to do to abdicate the responsibility for protecting the public welfare just because you feel like the City has other intentions,” Supervisor Smith told the water board. “You can’t abdicate that responsibility.”

IDENTITY

MCDWID has been most emphatic that it is not a fire district but is only expected to provide domestic water.

“When we got funding loans from Rural Development to basically develop the water system, they do not cover fire hydrants,” said Cooper, the MCDWID attorney. “Yes, there are cleanout devices. Yes, they look like you-know-whats, but for our purposes they’re not fire hydrants because we are not in the fire business.”

Collings said any IGA should make MFMD responsible for tracking water flow because “they are the professionals.”

Sanchez said the district “exercises” the hydrants annually to make sure they function, “but we don’t flow test them because we’re not firefighters.”

Miller agreed with Cooper in saying the City has the authority to and has had plenty of time to start condemnation proceedings against the district instead of bringing the matter to the county.

“There are multiple ways to resolve these fire issues,” Miller told the City. “If you need fire flows over there, why not work with the district to get easements to bring a Global line over for fire protection purpose? Why isn’t there some type of work in that way? Because I can tell you, that would be probably the cheapest and the easiest way.”

VALUES

Mayor Christian Price

Price said when the City sent the district a list of questions, only a quarter of the questions were answered and those only partially. He also complained the questions were answered by the manager, “not the engineer and not the board.”

The manager, Sara Sheehan, also came through during Wednesday’s meeting with information the supervisors asked of the board and the engineer. That included the district’s debt load, which is $500,000 of its own and another $250,000 from a recent merger. The lease-purchase on their property is another $200,000 she said.

Price outlined the benefits the City has given the district over the years. That included donated property and additional, Community Development Block Grant-funded water tanks. The tanks took over the space the district was using for its office, so the City paid rent for nearby office space, which was “recently abandoned and they didn’t bother to tell us,” he said.

The district countered they had notified the City of its intent to leave the office space, resulting in one of several he-said-she-said standstills.

The City has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars redeveloping an area of the Heritage District, improving several properties, demolishing old homes, improving Main Street and preparing the area for commercial and civic facilities.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

“It is clear to me, watching documents go back and forth, that communication is extremely difficult,” Vice Mayor Smith said. “I think they have openly admitted that they were offended by the first approach by our city manager.”

She said the council gathered its facts from “the professional firefighter organization, from our fire department, our chief. They have the first-hand experience of what the danger is, what the hydrant problem is, what the flow problem is. They have experience over the years that they have taken to accumulate that information. It has been an ongoing problem.”

Supervisor Smith brought in Pinal County Special Services Administrator Pamela Villarreal and attorney Kevin Costello to question them about a recent merger in MCDWID.

In her professional capacity, Villarreal had reached out to the district about their election question on merging and asked for documents. The response was to ask for clarification of what she needed. Villarreal said she has still not received what she asked for, only numbers from former Elections Director Michele Forney regarding voters in the district.

“They missed several steps,” she said. “In 2017, they did a merge and did it properly, and I assumed they would know how to do it again.”

Costello said the county is looking at the legitimacy of the election.

“They did not follow the proper process,” he said.

Costello said there should have been a resolution passed by each district and sent to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing. He said instead there were resolutions to enter into an IGA with the Elections Department but no official call for an election.

Still, Miller, Goodman and Rios did not like the ask from the City of Maricopa.

“You’re asking these five gentlemen here to remove them from office based on fire flow and perception,” Miller said.

The supervisors received seven emails from water district residents, and three more came to the board clerk. All opposed takeover of MCDWID.