An independent audit of Gilbert’s water-treatment operations found the town is meeting bare-minimum standards for safety and quality while struggling to deal with vacant positions, insufficient training and a sometimes-intentional lack of communication, officials told the Town Council on Tuesday.
Colorado-based CH2M HILL Engineers conducted the audit, which was ordered by the council after town management discovered fluoridation had been halted for more than a year at one of Gilbert’s two water-treatment plants.
Although Gilbert’s public water supply is still meeting safety standards outlined in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the department has several outstanding issues that should be addressed swiftly, officials said.
“There are an extensive number of vacancies within the water department,” said Nicole Dailey, assistant to the town manager.
Those empty positions include water manager, water quality technician, chemist, plant operator, field supervisor, instrumentation technician and utility worker, according to Dailey’s presentation.
“This is concerning on a number of levels,” Dailey said. “One from retention of employees, one from future development of the division … it leads down to not being able to develop a culture of innovation.”
In order to address the problems, town officials proposed a contract extension with CH2M HILL worth nearly $500,000 to provide interim staff support through May. In the meantime, Gilbert will work through a longer-term transition plan.
The contract would be funded through existing money in the water department budget and about $200,000 in contingency funding, according to a town staff report.
At Tuesday’s study session, Councilman Eddie Cook asked what “metric” the town is shooting for if it is already meeting minimum requirements.
The goals include achieving a higher level of management practices, both in culture and communication, Dailey said. Additionally, the department will look for “financial efficiencies,” Dailey said.
When Councilman Ben Cooper asked why the department has so many vacancies, Dailey said there are many reasons.
“One of the reasons that we’re hearing is that we’re not financially competitive,” Dailey said. “We’ve compared recruitments to some other cities and there are a couple of positions that do pay differently than Gilbert does.”
Dailey said that town officials are looking at those “vulnerability areas” as part of an ongoing employee compensation study, the results of which are due next month.
A lack of detailed succession planning in the water department may have led employees to leave, believing there was no room for advancement in Gilbert, Dailey said.
Councilwoman Jenn Daniels said the CH2M HILL contract constitutes an expensive course correction but said she’s willing to support the investment because “it has to do with the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”
The council in September awarded CH2M HILL a $367,000 contract to evaluate all aspects of Gilbert’s water production in the wake of a fluoridation stoppage that put two high-ranking officials out of their jobs.
Gilbert voters in 2000 approved a mandate to add fluoride to drinking water, but the equipment was shut down in July 2011 due to concerns over corrosion and leaking. News of the problem apparently did not reach upper management until about 13 months after fluoridation was halted.
Former Water Manager Chris Ochs and former Public Works Director Lonnie Frost, who oversaw water production, were immediately put on administrative leave after the stoppage was discovered in August.Ochs was later terminated, and Frost retired after 28 years with the town.
With Frost’s departure, wastewater manager Mark Horn has stepped in as interim public works director. The town is currently accepting applications for a replacement, and the interview process will begin after the position closes on Nov. 26, town spokeswoman Dana Berchman said.