Board votes to penalize unauthorized removal of water from fire hydrants

The Oakland Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously last week to penalize individuals for their unauthorized removal of water from the town’s fire hydrants.
Board members took the action Thursday night during their regular monthly meeting on a motion offered by Alderman Billy Ray Morris and seconded by Alderman Karl Chambless.
During discussion shortly before the vote, Town Recorder Tammie Hightower said this theft of water needs to stop until the board can implement some type of policy and regulation regarding it.
While acknowledging that several cities throughout the state have a “permit” process allowing for removal of water, she noted that it is “limited” to specific types of companies.
When Alderman John Troncone asked how people are “getting into” the fire hydrants, Hightower said they have their own hydrant wrenches.
“If you see someone on the side of the road in one of our hydrants,” she said, “that’s a violation of the law. All of us need to monitor that, and somebody needs to be reporting it.”
Town Attorney Richard Myers recommended that the board make a “very clear statement” that anyone seen taking Oakland’s water without permission will be cited and assessed a fine.
He said some individuals may claim that it has always been a “practice” of the town to allow them to remove water from a hydrant.
“To the extent that there was any sort of practice that anybody interpreted to be a policy, it’s not,” he noted. “There’s no longer any confusion. You can’t take our water. And if you do, you’re going to end up having to pay for it.”
Hightower said that, within a week after receiving the two audits from the previous administration, the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office notified the state Utility Board about some “issues” with Oakland’s Water and Sewer Department.
She said the administration is currently responding to “numerous questions” regarding those issues and proposing a plan that must be implemented.
“One of the biggest problems is that 39 percent of our water is unaccounted for,” she noted. “It never makes it to a bill to anyone, and that’s unacceptable.”
Along with the unauthorized removal of hydrant water, Hightower said there are “lots of reasons” why Oakland has that kind of water loss. Among the others she cited are:
(1) a “master meter” that is “10-percent off;”
(2) town-owned buildings not billed for their water usage;
(3) no meters installed in the Water Department;
(4) the Fire Department not reporting its water usage to the Water Department; and
(5) no documentation of water main leaks.
Noting that the Utility Board has scheduled a meeting on Nov. 13, Hightower said it will let Oakland know whether its plan to “rectify the situation” is acceptable.
Because the water “issues” seem to have existed for some time, Troncone asked why the Utility Board was not notified before this year. Hightower said the town did not have its audits performed annually.
“This is part of your financial audit,” she noted. “There’s a report that you have to do every year and submit it to the auditors.”
Mayor Chris Goodman said this is related to a change in the law during the past several years that specifies how much municipalities are allowed to show as a loss. He said that is getting “progressively smaller.”
“We’re coming up on another big turn, either next year or the year after, where what they’ll allow goes from 20 percent to 15 percent,” he noted. “So, a lot of it is really just getting more attention as that law goes forward.”
Hightower said the auditor for this past fiscal year was scheduled to be in Oakland early this week, and she expects to be working with him for the next several weeks.
“This is going to be the audit where he compiles everything and starts doing all the adjusting entries to get our books in the shape that they’re supposed to be,” she concluded. “Once we get through this one, he’ll get us all the information we need, and we’ll adjust everything.”