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Last month, Cleveland Park residents decided to buy new shower heads for their local fire station. But instead of welcoming the contribution of the neighborhood rescue squad, D.C. Fire Chief Otis Latin seems to have gotten burning mad.
The Battle of the Broken Shower Heads was joined on March 2, when Capt. Patrick Johnson, chief of Station 28, spoke at a Cleveland Park Citizens Association meeting. Johnson brought along a wish list for his station, which is located on Connecticut Avenue, next to the Uptown Theater. He told the association that the station was missing chairs, desks, computers, mattresses, and typewriters. The most critical need, Johnson said, was the repair of the shower used by the two women in the 30-member company.
At that time, the women’s shower had been broken for a month. Several of the showers used by the men also were out of service.
According to President Stephen Koczak, the association voted to raise and spend $200 for new shower heads and repairs. The Brookville Supermarket across Connecticut Avenue from the depleted fire station began collecting donations from customers and quickly raised around $500.
But then the department weighed in. According to spokesman Alvin Carter, Latin became concerned because the Cleveland Park group was considering giving the money directly to Johnson. Koczak denies that claim. The chief also objected, Carter says, when corporations started offering to donate money for a new ladder truck, which would run well into six figures.
“You just can’t have people giving cash directly to the companies,” Carter says.
(The aerial ladder truck for upper Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenue neighborhoods has been out of service for some time, and fire stations in that section of the city are relying on trucks that are more than two decades old. A new ladder truck was scheduled to arrive at Station 28 this week.)
Latin also worried that private help would conflict with the department’s own repairs. Carter says that the department’s “planning office had already taken steps” before the March 2 meeting to send its plumbers to fix Station 28’s showers.
“It would look awfully silly if the community raised the money and then they sent a crew in only to find out it had already been done by the department the day before,” he insists.
Perhaps. But six weeks after department plumbers were supposed to be on their way, the showers at Station 28 remain out of service.
And what’s worse, says Koczak, is that the department is retaliating against the neighborhood. Koczak claims Latin now forbids neighborhood firefighters from attending community meetings because candid discussions about the dire state of the city’s fire stations embarrass the department.
Not so, claim department officials. After the Cleveland Park episode, they say, the chief simply reiterated a long-standing policy that battalion chiefs, rather than local firehouse captains, handle communication with community groups. The battalion chiefs can speak for the needs of several fire stations, not just one.
“The battalion chief, who goes to meetings with the deputy chief, is far more aware of department policy than a company officer may be,” says Carter.
“It has nothing to do with the department being embarrassed,” Carter adds.
Koczak scoffs at this explanation.
“If this is a long-standing policy, it’s been a policy in heaven,” he says. “For the last two years, I’ve been the president here, and it’s always been the captain or the lieutenant [from Station 28] who’s been coming.”
Until last Saturday, that is. Battalion Chief Robert Gilbert, who oversees several fire stations in upper Ward 3, showed up for the association’s April 6 meeting instead of Johnson.
“He didn’t know anything about anything,” Koczak says of Gilbert. “I felt sorry for the guy because he said he was just instructed to come to the meeting.”
With the station entering its third month of busted showers, department officials may be changing their minds about the Station 28 donations. This week, Carter told LL that the department might use the money donated by Brookville shoppers for repairs.
“There might be some way we can work it out,” he says. “We’re going to have to kick it around a little bit and see.”
How long the department brass will need to “kick it around” is anyone’s guess.
BLUE PLAINS SHUFFLE
After D.C. officials siphoned $80 million from the water and sewage fund to pay other bills last year, Congress and D.C.’s suburban neighbors all but forced the city to share management of the Blue Plains treatment plant. In January, the D.C. Council passed a bill establishing a regional authority to run the plant and oversee the area’s water distribution. The legislation only grants four of the authority’s 10 seats to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Now, even as suburban lawmakers are urging Congress to give Maryland and Virginia more authority in the authority, the D.C. government is quietly attempting another end run.
The regional authority is scheduled to take charge of the plant Oct. 1, but before that happens, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) plans to award a huge contract for a new “dewatering facility” at Blue Plains. The facility, as its name suggests, will remove water from sewage and replace the plant’s current one, considered obsolete. (The dewatering facility is unrelated to the “stipulated agreement” the city just negotiated with the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That agreement, announced April 5, settled a federal lawsuit against the city over pollution discharged from Blue Plains into the Potomac River. It requires the city to spent $20 million on other capital improvements at Blue Plains.)
Rival firms and congressional staffers speculate that Bio-Grow, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., has the inside track on the dewatering contract, which could be worth more than $100 million. The Illinois-based Waste Management is the nation’s largest waste-disposal firm, and Bio-Grow is now in the final year of a lucrative sludge-hauling contract for Blue Plains.
(A historical note: Last year, Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), a subcontractor on that sludge-hauling contract, offered to charge the city $14 a ton less than Bio-Grow in return for increasing the amount of sludge it could haul. BFI estimated the move would have saved the District as much as $4 million during the final year of the contract. But city sewage officials refused to alter the contract. Now they are asking for a 70-percent increase in water and sewage fees.)
DPW solicited bids last December for construction and operation of the dewatering facility. The request for bids set construction costs at between $12 million and $16 million; operation and production costs could be as much as $100 million. The city wants one firm to both build and operate the facility. The contract will be let for one year, but the city will retain the option of renewing it annually for up to five additional years.
“Whoever gets this contract, it’s for life. You’ll have to really screw up to lose it, and it’s incredibly lucrative,” says an industry source.
DPW scheduled a pre-bid conference for Jan. 9, with bids due by Feb. 29. But an official of one firm that attended the Jan. 9 conference said his company did not bid on the contract because the time allotted was insufficient to compile all the technical studies required by the city’s bid proposal. That official, who asked not to be identified, said the burdensome requirements of the proposal favor firms that knew about this contract in advance, and pointed to Bio-Grow because of its ongoing association with Blue Plains.
The Feb. 29 deadline eventually was extended to April 3, but that decision was made after this firm had decided not to bid.
DPW spokeswoman Linda Grant said this week that the agency has received four bids but declined to say whether Bio-Grow was among the companies bidding. She added that the city won’t select the winning bid for two months.
Allegations of possible favoritism toward Bio-Grow have caught the eye of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) Lewis chairs the House appropriations subcommittee with oversight over the EPA. Lewis recently sent EPA Administrator Carol Browner a letter advising her to prepare to discuss Blue Plains and the planned dewatering facility when she testifies before his subcommittee next week.
The congressman sent Browner a list of 22 questions concerning the proposed contract, including: “Does the EPA have knowledge that the [bid proposal] is based upon technical information from private industry sources?”
According to a subcommittee staffer, that question stemmed from allegations conveyed to Lewis that industry officials associated with Waste Management may have had a hand in drafting the city’s request for bids.
Grant said she was unaware of these allegations and of next week’s congressional hearing. As far as she knew, no city officials had been asked to testify.
Grant said the city is not attempting to issue the contract before the authority takes power. “Business needs to continue, and it was something that had to be done,” she said.
The EPA agrees. An EPA official said this week that his agency had been pressing the city to replace the dewatering plant as quickly as possible. “This is something that needed to happen, and I think this notion that you need to wait for the establishment of the authority is not a credible argument.”
The official said he is aware of grumblings about the contract process, but since no EPA funds will be spent on the project, the agency lacks the authority to monitor the bidding.
With some Ward 3 homeowners convinced that they have been singled out for 100-percent—and in at least one case, 125-percent—increases in their property-tax bills for next year, LL thought we might calm the waters by examining assessments in other parts of the city. And what better place to start than at 161 Raleigh St. SE, the home of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and Cora Masters Lady MacBarry?
After all, the Barrys made extensive renovations on their home beginning in the summer of 1994. According to articles in the Washington Post, the value of the renovations could be as much as $150,000. (Barry supporter and city contractor Yong Yun allegedly paid the costs of some of these renovations, but city assessors wouldn’t know that.) So the assessed value of Barry’s home, and his property tax bill, should have risen accordingly, right?
Last year, before all of the renovations were finished, city assessors hiked the value of the Barrys’ home from $113,00 to $155,240—an increase of nearly 40 percent. This year, after the completion of the home improvement, city assessors peg the value of the Barrys’ house at…$155,240.
Speaking of property taxes, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library finally received its copy of the Real Estate Assessment Roll for Tax Year 1997 this week. “The Roll,” as it is known, lists ownership and financial information about all 168,000 parcels of property in D.C. The city is required by law to disseminate copies for public use: The Roll was due in city libraries in early March so that residents could use it in preparing property-tax appeals before the April 30 filing deadline. Because of the financial crisis, the King Library copy is the only one available to the public this year. And with less than three weeks left to file property-tax appeals, it may have arrived too late.CP
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