A senior living apartment complex and senior center is continuing to deal with the effects of a water leak that caused more than $13,000 worth of damage, which the city contended it would not pay for in total.
Property Manager Kerri Norman claimed that the April 18 leak that happened after the city installed a new water meter was the city’s fault, which city officials have not denied.
Arkansas cities have tort immunity, which means they are often not liable for damages, even when the damage is their fault. However, the city has a policy that states it will pay up to $5,000 for water line leak claims. City Administrator Carl Geffken agreed to pay the maximum of $5,000.
Norman then brought the issue to the city’s Board of Directors, asking that the city pay the total $13,209.87, the full cost to repair the damage. The directors were divided on the issue, voting 3-3 at its Aug. 15 meeting with At-large Director Tracy Pennartz absent, so the resolution to pay the additional $8,209.87 did not pass for lack of a majority vote.
Midtown’s average water bill prior to the leak was $3,700, Norman said. In May, it was more than $5,000, then more than $9,000 in June and then more than $6,000 in July.
“At the Board of Directors meeting, I said, ‘Until the meter’s tested, can we please just pay the average?’ Norman said. “And they allowed me to do that, and Mr. Geffken said I would be responsible for the balance of the bill if I did not give them an invoice from a plumber showing that a repair was made for a leak. There was no leak. It went back down to $6,781. I mean, that’s a lot of water. We would have found that somewhere … If there was a leak, then why would it go back down?”
A Sept. 14 email from Norman to Geffken states, “I just received my most recent water bill for August for $4,429.79 It is still not as low as it should be, however it is much lower than our bills from the past several months. As you know, before our water meter was replaced the average bill for the previous 12 months was $3,700
Since then they have been:
• May 2017 $5,050.49.
• June 2017 $9,173.74.
• July 2017 $6,181.06.
• August 2017 $4,429.79.
The average for the past four months is still $2,100 more than our average bill prior to the installation and malfunction of the new meter. I am still waiting on an explanation as to why the readings have been so erratic. Has anything been determined? Has anyone spoken to the manufacturer? I was told by the Water Dept. that speaking with the manufacturer would be the next step. Are we going to be hit again next month with an outrageous water bill? What, if anything has been done to solve this problem?”
Geffken said Tuesday that the new water meter the city installed is accurate and shows that there must be a leak because there is always water running through the meter.
“We put in a new meter. Their bills are what their bills are,” he said.
Midtown residents are at least 55 years old and make $27,900 a year or less.
“Most of our tenants don’t make near that,” Norman said.
Residents’ rent is based on their income. They pay 30 percent of their income to live at Midtown.
Since news broke that the city was not going to pay more than $5,000, some people have offered to donate to Midtown. However, Norman said that because Midtown is a privately owned company and not a nonprofit, the staff does not consider taking donations to be the right thing to do.
“We really appreciate the responses we’ve gotten from citizens of Fort Smith, and a lot of people have asked about donations,” she said. “And that is such a kind thing to do, but we would rather they take care of nonprofit organizations in the city.”
The apartment complex, a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) property, also houses one of Sebastian County’s senior centers, which is a nonprofit that takes part in the Meals on Wheels program, serving about 200 meals a day. The senior center is not designated for only Midtown residents — any senior can take part. The senior center was closed for about five or six weeks after the leak and the Meals on Wheels program was suspended for about a week, Norman said.
“We are having to cut back on different areas of our budget,” Norman said. “We will do what we have to do without it affecting our tenants.”