Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Thawing homeowners' frozen pipes could take weeks: engineer
Union blames lack of staff as homes go without water
It will take weeks for city crews to thaw the frozen water pipes connected to Winnipeg homes and businesses, a city engineer said Tuesday.
The city confirmed that water lines leading to 300 properties are frozen, as a result of the extreme cold weather the city has faced this winter. A civic spokeswoman said the number of homes affected by frozen water lines is the highest in 35 years, with the typical wait time now seven days and longer.
The city has three machines that thaw the pipes using electrical current, and each job can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 14 hours, city engineer Tim Shanks told reporters this afternoon.
The city is unable to rent or acquire more of the machines because they are no longer manufactured, he said. Machines that use steam to thaw pipes are usually not effective because their range is limited, he said.
Shanks said the backlog of complaints may not be rectified for weeks.
To prevent more homes from winding up without water, properties adjacent ones that are or have been without water have been told to keep water running overnight. Those properties will not be billed for the extra water use, he said.
The unusual cold this winter has led to the complaints, which started in December, Shanks said. In February alone, approximately 200 properties had pipes thawed and about 300 remain in the queue, he said.
'Do I have to wait until spring?'
Kaylee Mack, a 28-year-old Elmwood mother with three young daughters, ages two, six and eight has had no water at her Chalmers Avenue home for the past eight days -- and she has no idea how much longer it will go on.
Mack has been relying on store-bought water every day and trips with her daughters to the local YMCA every other day to shower.
Mack said she buys two 19-litre jugs of water from a local grocery store and uses it to wash dishes and for food preparation.
"I called the city on the second day and they told me it would be fixed in four days," Mack said Monday. "On the fourth day, they told me it would be seven days.
"It's now Day 8 and the city can't tell me how much longer it's going to be -- they have no idea."
"I can't believe I live in a big city and I've got no water," said Jesse Mysak, 31, who lives on Warsaw Avenue. "I called 311 and they said they're backed up seven days and I said, 'I know that -- I've been waiting nine days.' "
The problem of frozen water lines is so severe Mack and other homeowners like her are not even on the city's priority list. Her ward councillor's office told her crews with thawing equipment are concentrating on schools, hospitals, daycare facilities and residents with special health needs.
"I have to rely on friends for water so I can flush my toilet," said Mountain Avenue resident Cathy Chorney, 55.
"I have been without water since Feb. 14. This is nuts."
Mysak said he understands he is on a waiting list but doesn't understand why the city can't tell him when they'll fix the problem. "They won't tell me," Mysak said.
"Do I wait two weeks, a month? Do I have to wait until spring when everything is thawed out? Do I have to move back into my dad's home?"
Union, city spar over staff levels
Union president Mike Davidson said political and management decisions to freeze hiring as a tax-saving measure has resulted in too many civic departments operating with bare minimum number of staff.
"This is winter in Winnipeg," said Davidson, president of CUPE Local 500, which represents city employees. "First it was busted water mains, then snow clearing and now it's frozen pipes. Citizens of Winnipeg deserve better than this."
Davidson said the staff shortages are deliberate and widespread, part of the city's plan to save $14 million in a hiring freeze.
"We are running skeleton staffs right across the city and citizens are paying the price for it."
But Shanks and a city councillor said claims of staff shortages are inaccurate and not the cause of the problem.
"We are using everything at our disposal," Swandel (St. Norbert) said.
The city increased the number of thawing crews from one to three, working seven days a week and employed an additional crew to work overnight five days a week, Swandel said.
On the weekend, finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt said the city has been unable to effectively clear sidewalks and some streets because too much of its equipment is sitting idle because the city doesn't have enough mechanics to repair it.
Several civic directors warned councillors during the December budget deliberations that they didn’t have enough staff in their departments to do the work that is required of them.
Wyatt blamed administrators fearful of challenging Local 500, but Davidson said the city doesn't have enough heavy-duty mechanics on staff and there is a ban on overtime.
"The city won't hire the staff they need to repair the broken equipment, and they won't authorize overtime for the staff they do have," Davidson said. "This is not the level of service that Winnipeggers expect or deserve."
City officials said there is no ban on overtime and efforts are being taken to deal with the backlog to repair broken snow-clearing equipment.
Has the city become too lean to provide services taxpayers expect?
Join the conversation in the comments below.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2014 B1
Updated on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 11:37 AM CST: Adds comment from Coun. Swandel.
4:48 PM: Adds comment from city engineer.
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