County to take over hydrant inspections

The water department will evaluate the system before seeking new bids for the job.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough commissioners moved Wednesday to cut loose a company that inspects fire hydrants and ban it from future business with the county.

That decision came after a hydrant that Cropland Services of Bartow recently said it had inspected failed to work during a fire that destroyed a Northdale home earlier this month.

The county's Water Resource Services Department subsequently inspected 106 similar hydrants and found nine others not working to standards, even though they had gotten passing marks from Cropland.

Unlike the city of Tampa, which was recently under fire for not inspecting hydrants on an annual basis, the county had been keeping up with inspections of its 11,200 hydrants. However, the caliber of those inspections is now in question.

"So quality assurance looms here," said Paul Vanderploog, director of water resource services. "There's an issue of confidence there."

Attempts to reach Cropland late Wednesday were unsuccessful. Vanderploog said his staff has not been able to reach anyone at the company either.

The fire hydrant on Bonneville Drive had passed an inspection two months before firefighters attempted to use it Aug. 7 to douse a fire that claimed a home there, forcing rescue workers to use another hydrant farther away.

Firefighters were unable to turn the first hydrant's "operating nut" to get water flowing because it wasn't properly lubricated, Vanderploog said.

The hydrant has since been replaced, as has one of the nine others that failed followup inspections. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue officials say the home would have been destroyed anyway because it was fully aflame when rescuers arrived.

"This is a matter of life and death," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who requested the report. "People must have confidence that their hydrants will work."

The county has a two-year contract with Cropland which is set to expire and the county was in the process of seeking new bids for the work. The water department will take over inspections for now to get a handle on the condition of its system before crafting a new bid request that will seek to build in a system of checks and balances.

Commission Chairman Jim Norman expressed exasperation that the county wasn't seeking some sort of penalty from Cropland, noting the garbage companies get fines for missing pickups. He suggested barring them from future business.

"Hogwash," Norman said. "There can be penalties."

County officials will examine whether they can assist the family that lost its home and seek further recourse against Cropland.

In other action, commissioners:

- Gave County Attorney Renee Lee a 2.5 percent raise, a two-year contract extension and some praise. However, two commissioners, Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe, encouraged her to continue providing them legal guidance based on her best professional judgment rather than what Lee thinks an individual commissioner might want to hear. Lee's new contract will pay her $203,009 annually.

- Voted unanimously to have the county's internal performance auditor review a contingency fund controlled by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. The PTC board suspended with pay its executive director, Greg Cox, while it examines accusations against him.

Bill Varian can be reached at 813 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com