In the two weeks since a program to assist residents with broken plumbing was launched, only two installation issues have been fixed, according to officials working on the project.
Following a catastrophic failure of the city’s water system, Liberty Utilities, which operates the system, gave the United Way of Southeast Arkansas a check for $ 250,000 to help up to 360 residents with installation problems caused by the record-breaking low temperatures in Midt February.
At a second and final planning meeting on March 3, Liberty officials, as well as staff from the City’s Economic and Community Development Bureau and United Way set the details to help those who did not have water reconnect their plumbing . Mayor Shirley Washington said at the meeting that residents are suffering and that time is of the essence.
But progress was slow. City and freedom officials said the problem is finding skilled plumbers willing to do the extra work.
Larry Matthews, director of the economic bureau, said he failed to get any of the seven to ten local plumbers to attend.
“Plumbers are the hardest to come by,” he said. “Most are likely booked out with their own home calls and repairs.”
Matthews said he ran several ads in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in hopes of reaching a wider audience, but to no avail.
“I don’t think anyone called to answer that,” he said.
Matthews was involved in efforts to repair broken water pipes as some of the residents may have limited funds and will qualify for the funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which his office is distributing. Liberty said it would allow up to $ 500 per repair to be paid, and Matthews said his office could pick up that amount if the resident qualifies.
United Way’s job is to get the approved bills for the repairs and to write the checks for the work. The agency agreed to help as it is a non-profit organization and has the resources to process the records.
However, residents don’t have to be on a low income to qualify to have their damaged lines repaired with the Liberty money, said Lamont Davis, a Liberty representative. The total number of residents whose water had to be turned off due to burst pipes and leaks was given by Liberty as 360 in a disaster statement established by Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson.
Of those customers, Davis said Liberty “had no idea” how many fixed their plumbing problems, either by hiring a plumber or a handy person, or by fixing the leak themselves. However, he said he had “over 100” customers that Liberty and an outside firm found they were entitled to use the Liberty money to fix their plumbing problems.
And yet, “It’s so slow,” said Davis. “We didn’t expect an inconvenient shortage of plumbers.”
He said Liberty only wanted licensed plumbers to do the repairs, but those who work for such plumbers would also qualify. Residents could not pay for someone to do the job and would then be reimbursed because there is a risk that the problem will recur and Liberty will be blamed.
“There’s no refund,” Davis said, adding that the check for the repairs is made out by the plumber, not the resident.
When asked how many customers had their plumbing fixed, Davis said he didn’t know, but the number was “low”.
“I didn’t get a number,” he said. “It’s not much. There just aren’t enough certified plumbers to get the job done.”
Jason Duren, a senior executive at United Way, said earlier this week his office had received no bills or issued any checks. By Thursday that number had risen to a plumber who had done two repairs.
Even if all 100 residents had problems with the installation, maximizing the $ 500 Liberty is willing to pay for each one, much of the $ 250,000 donation would not have been spent. When asked what Liberty would do with the rest of the money, Davis said the utility will find ways to keep serving customers.
“We will be using this money in a variety of ways to help customers benefit Pine Bluff and the Pine Bluff area,” he said.
Matthews said Thursday that he would meet with Davis in hopes of streamlining the process and attracting more plumbers.