Columbia Water eyes more contractors as some customers wait 7 months for fixes

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Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 6:18 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 31, 2022 at 6:35 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - If you call Columbia Water for service, department data shows you may be in for a wait for the issue to be fixed.

WIS submitted a Freedom of Information request for Columbia Water service call data between June 1, 2021 and Jan. 13, 2022.

The data shows some calls are taking more than seven months to close.

WIS spoke with Mayor Daniel Rickenmann, Assistant City Administrator Clint Shealy, and Columbia Water customers about the delays.

Shealy told WIS a short-staffed department is having to choose which leaks are more pressing to address, leading to delays. Rickenmann laid out his vision of Columbia Water, namely partnerships with local contractors.

The data

Columbia Water provided WIS with two spreadsheets of information for Columbia Water service calls.

The first spreadsheet reflected information on the 5,862 calls for service opened and closed within the June 1, 2021 to Jan. 13, 2022 timeframe.

The closure of the calls signifies the problem has been fixed or no problem was found.

The second spreadsheet reflected data on the 2,284 calls dispatched within the same timeframe but had not yet been closed by the department.

The data does not reflect any work done by private contractors.

Assistant City of Columbia Administrator Clint Shealy oversees Columbia Water.

He said there may be calls within the “dispatched” portion which have been completed, but not formally closed out in Columbia Water records.

Shealy explained the department keeps two sets of data on work needs identified within the city.

The first is the service calls (the data in WIS’ possession), and the second is work-orders.

Multiple calls for service on a problem may generate a single work order.

The 2,284 dispatched/open calls are different than the 4,000 workorder backlog referenced in other publications and in a February news conference.

RELATED STORY | City of Columbia details plan to address persistent delays at its Water Division amid staffing shortages

The service call data reflects a limited timeframe and a different data set.

The spreadsheets include addresses, the date opened, the date closed (if applicable), and a description of the issue and a priority level.

Closed calls

WIS used the data to calculate the delays between the calls being received and closed, if applicable.

The data shows that when Columbia Water closed calls, it was doing so quickly on average.

38 percent of the time, calls were closed within a day.

The average time between dispatch and closure was 10.67 days.

WIS found call closure lasted 31 days or longer 9.6 percent of the time.

The data includes two calls which lasted over 200 days to close.

The longest call was a 208-day period until closure for a water property restoration (i.e. landscaping after water work was completed).

Open calls

Calls that had not been closed reflected significantly longer delays.

70 calls had been open for 106 days as of Jan. 13, 2022.

81 percent of the calls had been open for 31 days or longer.

2.1 percent of the calls had been open for a day or less.

The average time calls had been open was 100.15 days as of Jan. 13, 2022.

Five dispatched calls maxed out at 226 days, the full window of time.

Where, what and their importance

For both closed and dispatched calls, the 29203 zip code was a leader in the number of calls for service.

The 29229 zip code and the 29036 zip code led all areas in average wait time for dispatched and closed calls respectively.

The graphic below only includes addresses for which zip codes were provided.

Leak checks led all other issues in both closed and dispatched calls. Water property restoration (i.e. landscaping after the water work was done) was a leader in average wait times.

The calls are given a 1 through 7 ranking in terms of priority. Columbia Water provided this breakdown:

1-Emergency

2-Critical

3-Management

4-Standard

5-Follow Up

6-After Hours

7-Project

Standard calls make up the majority of both closed and dispatched calls. It leads all dispatched calls in average length of time open, with at 103 days.

Emergency calls lead the closed calls in average time until closure, at 15.4 days.

What it looks like in the field

Irmo resident Don Bobeng contacted WIS about a leak and significant delays in getting it addressed.

WIS visited his home on March 18, where water had visibly been flowing into his driveway and part of his front yard and backyard.

He said the water made part of his yard useless and a “muddy mess.”

“Can’t do anything. I figure this is what, 35, 40 percent of my yard? I can’t do a thing with,” he said.

Bobeng gave WIS a tour, at times getting mud splatters up to his knees as a result.

He forwarded WIS several email chains dating back to Sept. 13, 2021 between himself and Columbia Water staff about the issue.

The first email from Sept. 13 read in part:

There is an underground leak somewhere which needs to be found and fixed. The side of my lot is soaked because of it.

WIS tallied 28 more emails Bobeng sent to Columbia Water customer care, staff and city administration from Sept. 2021 through March 2022 asking Columbia Water for assistance.

“People at customer care were very nice, but they couldn’t really tell me anything. They told me they were going to report it to the maintenance department, heard nothing from the maintenance department and like I said the customer care people couldn’t really give me any indication of when somebody was coming out, when it would be fixed,” Bobeng said.

Initially, Bobeng’s emails kept a running tally of how long the issue had gone without correction. Bobeng said Columbia Water personnel did come out in October and February to view the problem, but it remained unresolved.

“We did have one person from the city come one day. He came, he looked, he said yep there’s a leak, but he could give me no indication of when he could get to it,” Bobeng’s wife Cheryl said.

The emails reflect Bobeng’s frustration when workers wouldn’t show up when he had been told they would.

“To be honest with you I’m thinking this is not the greatest service. I come from Raliegh, North Carolina and the town I was in in Raliegh, this probably would’ve been taken care of in a week,” Bobeng said.

On March 21, Bobeng emailed WIS stating Columbia Water may correct the problem that week.

WIS emailed Columbia Water’s spokesperson about the Bobeng’s situation on March 23, ahead of the March 24 interview with Shealy.

Bobeng contacted WIS on March 24 that Columbia Water had fixed the leak.

On March 30, he sent WIS an email reading in part:

The ground is drying out so I do believe they fixed the leak. However no one has returned to remove the cones and fix my neighbors yard.

During the March 24 interview, Shealy said the driveway restoration was “forthcoming,” aiming for the week of March 27.

He said after multiple trips, staff found the leak under a driveway, describing the project as “particularly difficult” requiring specialized leak detection equipment and staff.

“When you’re looking for a leak in underground buried infrastructure, if you’ve done that, it’s not always ‘hey it’s exactly right here,’” Shealy said.

WIS asked why it took seven months to get the leak addressed.

“Priorities. Workforce and priorities,” Shealy said.

He said major leaks on major thoroughfares take precedence.

“We often tell customers it is our intention to be out on say, Wednesday. If we have more emergency, high priority work that we have to repair, that sometimes gets in the way of honoring that commitment,” he said.

The Bobeng’s address was present twice in the closed calls data. Both service calls were opened on Sept. 13, 2021.

The first was closed on Oct. 27, 2021 and the second was closed on Oct. 11, 2021.

The first call was listed as a priority 2 (critical) while the latter was priority 4 (standard).

Shealy said he doesn’t know why the service requests were closed, but there was an open workorder for the case.

He said the designation of priorities in the service calls are based on customer descriptions of the situation.

“Our folks go take a look and then they assess and say it’s a slow leak, it’s a standard repair,” he said.

Shealy said there is a claims process for the city to provide yard restoration work, and Bobeng told WIS he would be submitting a claim.

WIS also visited a leak at the Columbia intersection of Colonial Drive and Prescott Road, in the 29203 zip code on March 18.

WIS found water bubbling up from a hydrant, pooling near a daycare, and flowing into the road.

Dr. Constance Lorick-Walker is a Prescott Terrace resident and said leaks at the intersection have been ongoing for 2 to 3 years.

“What they’ll do, the city will come out and they’ll patch it versus bringing up, taking up the cement, fixing the pipes underneath the ground,” she said.

She expressed concern about the standing water’s location near the daycare children.

“This water is polluted. It’s a danger to the children themselves, let alone adults, their parents. It’s an eyesore as well for our community, no one seems to care,” she said.

Lorick-Walker said she had been in communication with Columbia Water about the issue and provided a service request number which is not present in WIS’ data. WIS also searched for the intersection among the addresses in the data, and could not find it.

“They could give me a ticket number, and that’s it. No follow-up if the work’s been done, nothing like that,” she said.

As of March 30, she told WIS the leak has not been fixed and she’s received no word from Columbia Water on its completion.

On March 18, Shealy said Columbia Water has contacted local utilities to identify areas to avoid. He said he was hopeful the work would be done the week of March 27.

“Certainly, we don’t want standing water around from water leaks, mosquito breeding grounds and those types of things, we don’t want that. We try to address those as we can,” he said.

Shealy said he wasn’t sure about the specific history of the pipe at the intersection, however Columbia Water is battling old infrastructure.

“You do run into that, where you’ve got really old infrastructure and you make a repair, and then three weeks later you’ve got a leak 10 feet down stream and so the ultimate solution is you’ve got to replace that infrastructure, you’ve got to replace that pipe.”

Manpower solutions and the future of Columbia Water

On Feb. 17, Shealy, Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann and Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson spoke in a news conference outlining the city’s customer service plan moving forward.

The city leaders put emphasis on the re-vamp of Columbia Water’s call center, shifting staff, and bringing in a private call center to improve the communication with customers.

Rickenmann also made a point of addressing landscaping delays. He said the city has worked to eliminate prohibitive insurance requirements, allowing contractors to bid on smaller projects .

“By eliminating those, and making the correct adjustments, it allows to take advantage of the private sector out there that can help us,” he said.

A March 10 update on the plan included a series of action items and status updates on solutions. They included contracting with local businesses, alternative marketing, an April 26 career fair and adding Columbia Water field staff.

Columbia Water data as of Feb. 15 shows it’s budgeted for 133 possessions for its Water Distribution & Maintenance team (i.e. those “in the field”), and only had 74 positions filled.

During the March 24 interview, Shealy described Columbia Water’s staffing as being on a “slow decline” that began with the onset COVID-19 pandemic.

He said a pile-up of service calls followed.

“A lot of quarantining, a lot infection and then we have a lot of staff vacancy in that area. We actually had to collapse two of the water districts, and have one crew serving both districts there for a period because we just didn’t have the manpower,” Shealy said.

During the news conference, Rickenmann put emphasis on partnering with local businesses to help fill the demand.

“Let our team do what we do best at the city, which is deal with the major problems. Our crews are fantastic with that, it’s all these little ancillaries” he said.

The city currently partners with four contractors to aid with Columbia Water projects.

RELATED STORY | Columbia City Council vote on setting aside almost $1 million for water pipe contractors

They include:

  • Carolina Tap and Bore, Inc.
  • Lake Murray Utility Company, Inc.
  • G. H. Smith Construction, Inc
  • North American Pipeline Management (NAPM)

A spokesperson for Columbia Water confirmed to WIS that NAPM and Carolina Tap and Bore, Inc.’s work has been targeted for the 29203 zip code.

The March 10 project update indicates the city council will be asked for additional funding for three contractors to “to perform accelerated leak repair work through the end of the fiscal year.”

In a March 23 interview, Rickenmann reiterated his desire to put more service calls in the hands of contractors.

“Let me be very clear, I’m not interested in filling all those [Columbia Water] positions. I want to make sure that we’re filling the positions that are critical for us to do our best job and the other parts we want to make sure we can use that money to pay for hiring small businesses and other business to fill the gap,” Rickenmann said.

Rickenmann said there will be some new hires “to build up to full staffing,” aided by contractors.

“I think it’s going to be a blend, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what the percentage would be, but you’ve got to remember every one of these projects we’re doing, we’ve have a project manager that’s at the city that’s embedded into it too, so we’re working hand in hand,” he said.

Rickenmann said he thinks the city will be in a position by July to expand its partnerships with contractors.

“What we’re doing now is identifying the opportunities and evaluating those,” he said.

Shealy described the existing partnerships with contractors as “very successful,” but also stressed a nucleus of workforce needs to be built up.

“We certainly have to [expand contractor work] right now, we just don’t have enough of our own staff to do it,” Shealy said.

“I do see the role of the private contractor helping us is something that is going to continue for quite some time.”

To aid with city staffing, Rickenmann pointed to the need for increased salaries.

“Why aren’t we using some of [the unused salary funds] to deal with those retention issues. To deal with recruitment, to allow us to pay competitive wages? Look, we have folks that are probably making less than $15 an hour, that’s not, we got to get them to a living wage here,” he said.

The March 10 update states work on adjusting city pay rates is “in progress.”

Additionally, it states “staff training and retention incentives are scheduled to be implemented in April 2022.”

Rickenmann said there are metrics for administration to meet moving forward.

“We want to know on a monthly what’s [administration’s] goal on hiring, what’s [administration’s] goal on completion of work orders. We’ve got to have some kind of measure to hold not only you accountable, but to hold us accountable, because if we’re not taking the barriers out of the way for you to use your job then that’s my fault, 100 percent,” he said.

Shealy said getting work done, response times and hiring metrics fall on him.

He said getting the water distribution team from roughly 40 percent vacancy to 25/20 percent in 2023, “that looks like success.”

Columbia Water’s financial moves

The ratepayer consequences (if any) of increased reliance on contractors are unclear. Shealy said the issue is being studied.

“We’ve been refining the process every step, every time we learn a little bit more,” he said.

Shealy was equally opaque about any rate increase request for city council, telling WIS Columbia Water is still studying the financials.

The city implemented a rate increase of just over 5 percent in 2021.

Rickenmann voted against the increase, citing the costs on the public during the pandemic.

“I think we should be looking at our rate, and we should provide the best water for the least expensive price for our citizens,” he said.

In the March interview, he did suggest charging ratepayers for the complimentary 300 cubic feet of water that for now is covered in the meter’s base fee.

“I’ve always been a proponent of why do we give away free water?” he said.

He estimated it would be $8 million a year coming in. When asked about it, Shealy did not disagree with Rickenmann’s estimate.

“Particularly in times where you’ve got escalating cost and inflationary pressures, everything that we’re buying as consumers and as a utility, the price is going up. Anything we can do to be more efficient and also improve our revenue gives us more money that we can invest in the system. Multiple ways to do that, when you look at rate structures, that’s certainly a way to do that, " Shealy said.

Columbia Water currently has an $182 million operating budget.

It has a $1 million budget for 2-inch pipe replacement. Shealy said the department will be asking to bump that to $4 million in the coming budget.

For scale, the first phase (of two) of the Shandon neighborhood’s water main replacement was budgeted at $7.5 million.

The city is also responsible for funding the work mandated by the EPA consent order.

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