Pine/Strawberry Water District Still Suffering Growing Pains

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The Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District has experienced its share of growing pains since it acquired the aging, poorly maintained Pine and Strawberry Water companies in 2009 from Brook Utilities.

But just one year ago the district took a giant leap forward when it approved a much anticipated and long awaited master plan that included hiring an engineer to study the current water system and develop and infrastructure plan for the district’s future.

A master plan, board members contended, would allow the district to overhaul the system methodically rather than making patchwork repairs.

Also in the master plan, which is still a work in progress, were strategies to accelerate the district’ water replacement program and replace out-of-date and inaccurate water meters that could save the district $100,000-plus per year.

Replacing those water meters is an ongoing process that has been slowed by the inability to hire qualified workers.

Also in the plan were goals to conduct a leak detection survey and repair leaks that could save $50-60,000 per year.

The plan also included $150,000 to inspect, clean and repair five water tanks.

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Water district installed new water lines along Pine Road last summer.

District Manager Brad Cole told the audience at the 2012 meeting that the tanks have never been cleaned or professionally inspected. The five 300,000-gallon tanks are located in Portals II, Portals III, Strawberry View I and Hardscrabble Mesa.

The master plan had the district running on all cylinders much like a fine tuned V-8 until mid June when an undisclosed problem knocked out service to about a third of the PSWID’s customers prompting the district to issue health warnings and appeal to all its customers to reduce usage.

A June 19,2012 notice to affected customers in 14 subdivisions scattered around the tiny mountain hamlet blamed the outage on “a combination of mechanical issues, drought conditions and increased demand.”

On June 22, PSWID officials announced that service has been restored throughout the system, reserve supplies were returning to normal levels and laboratory analysis of water samples indicates that the water is safe for consumption.

Which meant customers in the Pine area could resume normal use.

Following the repairs and the resumption of water service, the district returned to somewhat normal operations until a mid November board meeting during which member Tom Weeks revealed board treasurer Mike Greer had without approval been using a PSWID credit card that almost no one knew existed. The announcement fueled an explosion of accusations and finger pointing.

During the heated meeting, Weeks told board members and an audience of about 30 water users that while reviewing some district checks he “ran across a credit card statement” on which he noticed Greer had charges of $441 to Bass Pro Shop in Mesa and others to the Native New Yorker restaurant, Home Depot and Ace Hardware.

Weeks said he became suspicious because board members are not authorized to have district cards or make charges.

“There’s an issue here that needs to be resolved,” Weeks said. “I hated to see this day coming.”

After weeks of mounting pressure centering on Greer’s admitted misuse of the district credit card, the beleaguered Greer abruptly resigned.

The district quietly put up an advertisement for a new board member, without publicly announcing Greer’s departure, in the wake of two stormy board meetings during which Greer had attempted to explain his use of a district credit card for a mix of personal items and district business.

The resignation, however, didn’t stop the Arizona State Auditor General from investigating a flood of charges involving the PSWID including its 2011 purchase of 13 generators, an alleged conflict of interest by Weeks and alleged misuse of a district credit card by another board member.

Eventually local real estate developer Ray Pugel was chosen to fill Greer’s seat and later was elected board chairman.

Just weeks ago, a crowded community meeting designed to get a fresh start in addressing the problems of the district mixed compliments on the improved water supply with comments about strife in the district and a $40 monthly stand-by water charge.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin facilitated the daylong session, intended to help the newly elected, independent board come up with a plan for the future and address continued controversies.

“The number one thing that they said,” summarized Martin, “they want clean, healthy water every time they turn on the tap.

Also, they talked about never wanting to go on water restrictions again.”

Both goals can be attained as implanting the Master plan continues.

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