So what did you do on spring break?
If you’re cool like me, you met with Supervisor Ed Tinkle at the GSCDD building to discuss Gateway’s under-maintained sewer system.
Good times, good times.
When I invited anyone else who was interested to show up to the meeting I didn’t think anybody actually would, but Tinkle and I were joined by Hampton Park HOA board president Jim Brann who had some interesting questions for Tinkle.
When the Gateway Sun last wrote about this topic the Board of Supervisors had just authorized district staff to put cleaning about half the sewers in Gateway Greens out for bid. The goal was twofold: 1) to get half the sewers in Gateway Greens cleaned out, duh; and 2) to get price data on sewer cleanings so a Gateway-wide plan could be discussed.
But Tinkle began the meeting with Brann and I by letting me know I had misrepresented something Tinkle said. The Sun wrote last week that Tinkle said that once the sewer systems were cleaned out the district should clean the sewers again at a rate of 20% per year – therefore having the entire community cleaned out every 5 years. I also wrote that an engineer we spoke with recommended every 10 years. Tinkle said that he actually agrees with the 10 year cycles, but that he was saying the 5-year recommendation was only for the funding aspect of the system-wide sewer clean-out.
It is true that obtaining a 5-year loan for a Florida special district is a much, MUCH easier process than trying to get a 10-year or 20-year loan. But I watched the meeting video twice and I’m pretty sure the 5 year strategy was for the cleaning, too. That said, maybe I’m wrong and if so I apologize to Tinkle. But at least now there is some agreement since Tinkle says that a 10-year maintenance cycle would be adequate.
At the meeting with Brann and I, Tinkle shared some good news. The sewers under Gateway Boulevard, Griffin Drive and Commerce Lakes Drive west were all cleaned out as part of the Road Turnover Project.
During the most recent GSCDD meeting it was also revealed that the large sewer pipes in Stoneybrook were cleaned a few years ago, and either the large pipes or all the pipes were cleaned in Silverlakes. But the information we have right now is that all other district-owned sewers in Gateway have never been cleaned out.
So that’s where things stand, which means there’s a lot of work to do.
Tinkle showed us some large maps which detailed which areas of Gateway had a torpedo-shaped camera put in to the sewer pipes to inspect for blockage four years ago. It appeared as though most of the community had been done, but according to Tinkle the camera project stalled after it ran out of money.
Tinkle also said that the areas of largest concern were Daniel’s Preserve and Timber Ridge, with some areas of those sewers having as much as 80% blockage at the time.
At this point it may not make much sense to re-do the cameras-in-the-sewer thing and just start cleaning them instead. I asked Tinkle if he had a list of how old every community in Gateway was, and suggested the district start cleaning the sewers starting with the oldest community and working their way down the list.
Tinkle liked that idea but he said that newly constructed communities would actually need their sewers inspected and possibly cleaned out too because of construction debris. Fair enough.
When I brought up the question of cleaning the catch basins, Tinkle also offered new information that was rather startling.
Our engineering contact said that cleaning a catch basin would cost about $100. Tinkle agreed, but he said that in Gateway many of the “street inlet catch basins” would cost much more, explaining that “because our entire system is basically submerged and in order to clean these type of structures, the inlet needs to be isolated with a sewer plug or bladder at the downstream end, which is usually the point of discharge to the pond.”
Tinkle said those ones would cost $750 to clean.
When I asked how many catch basins there were in Gateway, Tinkle didn’t know for sure but he guessed around 600.
That means cleaning all the catch basins in Gateway could cost anywhere from $60,000 to $450,000 depending on how many can be cleaned using the simple method and how many would require the bladder.
On the surface it seems pretty ridiculous that the GSCDD doesn’t have basic information like “how many catch basins are you responsible for”, but after 3 years of watching this group operate and talking to district officials it only serves to highlight the fact that we’ve known for years: the GSCDD is understaffed.
They have never had the manpower and downtime to send someone out to count the catch basins, let alone to actually clean them.
Here’s the bottom line: Two civil engineers have told us that proper maintenance of a sewer system means inspecting and cleaning once per decade. Most of the communities in Gateway are over a decade old and have never been cleaned once.
Knowing that, it seems likely that Board of Supervisors will direct district staff to implement a sewer cleaning and maintenance plan for Gateway. What pace they operate at will depend on the board’s judgment of the severity of the problem and the dollars involved. The best-guess cost estimate right now is $2.3 million for a system-wide clean-out. Maintenance costs will come down to how many catch basins need the bladder and how many don’t. And, you know, how many catch basins there actually are.
The next update on the sewer cleaning topic we will have for you will be once the bids come in for the sewer cleanings in half of Gateway Greens. At that point we will have a clearer picture of the costs we’re looking at, and the Supervisors will be in a better position to decide the path forward.
For the benefit our new readers to the Gateway Sun… this publication is very much a part-time gig.. I’m actually a small business owner, which means I’m constantly evaluating things like time, effort, and return on investment. Before getting in to business I spent years developing technology for a Formula 1 racecar team. I’ve also built a slide-wheel detection system for Norfolk Southern, and I also helped create a system that used infrared imaging to detect flaws in printed circuit boards. Perhaps most importantly, I worked on software for one of the world’s first ever laser-based mammography systems.
So while I’m not a civil engineer with in-depth knowledge of sewer systems, I’m also not an idiot.
If the price tag from contractors to clean Gateway’s sewers is going to be $2-3 million – and make no mistake, this is work that has to be done because you cannot have clogged sewers – I believe the district needs to evaluate developing the capability to do the work in-house.
First, it will save money on the sewer cleanings alone.
Second, you will have 2 to 4 additional people on staff. And I’m not talking people who sit behind a desk (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But I’m talking about workers who get stuff done and get their hands dirty. These sewer clean-outs should only be done in the dry season as I understand it, but there’s plenty of other work that needs to be done in Gateway the rest of the year.
Their first task could be to count the number of catch basins we have in the district.
And when’s the last time the fire hydrants in Gateway have been maintained and who are we going to pay to do that when that comes around? Hypothetically, since the dry season is when the grass grows the slowest, could the new people also help with landscape maintenance the rest of the year and lower or eliminate the Mainscape bill? And I don’t know the answer to this specific question, but is there anything the new staff members could do as it relates to the ponds or wetlands?
I’m not for bigger government, but I’m not for totally understaffed government either. Especially an understaffed government that contracts everything out at a much higher cost to the public. So what’s wrong with taking $5 million worth of work that’s being outsourced and doing it for $3-4 million in house? Look how much time and energy (not to mention legal and engineering bills) it would save on preparing and evaluating all these different bid packages for all these different projects that get done.
And while I’m at it, I doubt you could bring the District Engineering role in-house because it’s probably better to work with a large firm like Tetra Tech, but how much money are we spending on an outsourced attorney?
The Gateway Services District has grown to the point where it may become more cost effective to do some things in-house rather than spending more time and money putting things out for bid to contractors.
The Board of Supervisors should at least start evaluating the pro’s and cons of hiring more staff to save money and increase capabilities… and in my opinion they should start with staff who have the capability to clean out sewers in the dry season and complete other projects the other times of year.