Council votes to adjust utility bills in Berkley

Published 3:32 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Franklin City Council and City Manager Amanda C. Jarratt shared details during the council’s Monday, May 9, meeting on what is being done to help residents in the Berkley Court area in the wake of the April 15 explosion there.

Gregory McLemore

The council also voted unanimously to provide an adjustment for people of Berkley Court on their utility bills pending an evaluation by Jarratt on the specifics of how that can be done.

Ward 3 Councilman Gregory McLemore said, “We can’t do anything about the trauma that they’re going to suffer with and how long they’re going to suffer with it, but we can do something about easing the financial burden of their utility bill for a period of time till this situation is made whole.”

On the night of April 15, there was an explosion in a duplex on Cameron Street that resulted in the death of Michael Wiggins and critical injuries to a female victim. The preliminary investigation indicates it was a propane explosion.

Jarratt provided an update on the response to the blast by the city, the property owner Berkley Court Partnership LP, and the property management company Severn Properties. She reiterated that it was a complex situation.

“The city’s role is to ensure that life safety matters are protected and that we don’t have any additional tragedies,” she said.

She later added, “The owners and management, with the city, issued a joint press release last week that indicated that because of the length of the time without tempered water, hot water, that they would be providing hotel stays to those individuals that wished to relocate. And those individuals that chose to stay in their apartment would not have to pay rent and that they would keep the shower trailers on-site.”

The joint May 4 press release began by stating that VCDC, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that has assisted in the investment of capital into Berkley Court Apartments for renovation several years ago, was announcing, along with the city, that both short- and long-term solutions were already underway to help residents that have been without access to hot water.

The release continued by stating that on May 3, residents of the Berkley Court community were personally contacted and offered the option to temporarily move into hotel rooms so they would have access to hot water and hot showers. VCDC will be paying the expenses of the hotel rooms, meals and expense related to transportation for residents who choose to relocate. The city is also working to ensure children have access to rides to school. Residents can also choose to stay in their apartments, despite no hot water, but have their monthly rent waived until

hot water is restored. A shower trailer will remain on the property and is cleaned and sanitized between uses.

“We know the residents need action to restore their community and to be able to have hot water and a hot shower readily available,” VCDC President and CEO Robert Newman said in the release. “While we have been diligently working on plans to replace the current gas hot water heaters to electric-powered hot water tanks in each apartment to heat the water, the process became multilayered and complex. We have simultaneously focused on additional short-term solutions in the interim.”

The release noted that installing electric water heaters to replace the gas-fueled water heaters will be the quickest and safest solution to restore hot water to homes in the community, and VCDC has coordinated with multiple engineers and contractors with a goal of starting installation as early as the week of May 8. However, regulatory consent to transition away from gas to electric could result in delays as investigations into the incident are expected to continue for several weeks.

“Locally though, the city of Franklin is fully behind VCDC’s solutions and ready to expedite any reviews, permits and approvals that need to take place to have hot water restored,” officials said in the release.

Amanda C. Jarratt

During the May 9 council meeting, Jarratt explained some of the details that are having to be considered amid efforts to make the conversion to electric water heaters in Berkley Court.

“The panel boxes that serve each of the apartments have to have enough room to accommodate the draw of an electrical hot water heater,” she said. “So there are 120-amp panel boxes, and so you would need a 30-amp hot water heater. The owners believe that they have found a contractor that can do that work. Electrical permits are required. This will have to go through the normal inspection process that we utilize when anyone is planning to install any kind of hot water heater.

“We are going to expedite that permitting process,” she continued. “However, the State Corporation Commission, which is the regulatory agency for the propane distribution system, which is the underground lines, has indicated that they don’t want any work to be done until that investigation is completed, which is scheduled for the last week in May. They want to ensure that everything from the investigation side is complete before any work starts.”

Jarratt said the city, plus the property owners, are trying to work with the SCC to expedite that process as much as possible.

“Right now it’s not really slowing anything down because this analysis of the panel boxes has to happen, and they have to obtain the number of hot water heaters that they need to obtain, which there’s 75 units at the facility,” she said.

She noted that eight additional families were relocated on Friday.

“I forwarded that information to the (Franklin City Public Schools) superintendent,” she said. “We certainly don’t want any children that have been relocated to suffer for missing school.”

The property representatives are supposed to have a call with the city mid-week during the week of May 8, Jarratt said, to talk about where they are with the SCC and with obtaining a contractor and the analysis to install the electrical hot water heaters.

Ward 6 Councilman and Vice Mayor Robert “Bobby” Cutchins said, “Do you know if they have ordered the hot water heaters?”

“No, not yet,” Jarratt replied. “We know that from the city’s power side that we have enough power on our side to support the hot water heaters, but especially because of the age of the facility, they want to make sure that every apartment’s panel box is the appropriate size to allow for a 30-amp hot water heater.

“The other issue that I understand from speaking to them is that in some cases it won’t fit at the exact same place that the current hot water heater is just because of the size and how it’s mounted, so they’re looking in each of the apartments, too, to see if they’re going to have to put it somewhere else,” she added. 

She made clear that in terms of city staff involvement in the response to the explosion, there are conversations taking place on a daily basis about how the city can continue to move the process forward.

Ward 4 Councilman Dr. Linwood Johnson asked, “The timeline on the investigation versus doing all the other improvements that we’re talking about, is that coming to a conclusion, or where exactly are we on that?”

“I would say the best way to describe it is they’re running parallel tracks,” Jarratt said. “So they’re not waiting for the investigation to be complete to start pursuing contractors’ bids, transferring out hot water heaters, analysis of the panels — they’re doing that now. But their hands are tied by the State Corporation Commission at this point. I know that there’s lots going on from the investigation perspective and that everyone plans to be on-site the last week in May, is what I understand.”

“So what is the city’s role in regards to inspections of the apartments?” Ward 5 Councilwoman Wynndolyn H. Copeland asked.

“This is privately owned property, and the city doesn’t have a role in inspections of individual apartments,” Jarratt replied. “So where we would inspect is if someone filed for a permit or someone filed a complaint that a house was unsafe or unsanitary — that’s what would trigger the city’s involvement. Otherwise we would not be involved.

“Now because there are federal funds that come into this property, they are required to do annual (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) HUD inspections,” she continued. “Now those HUD inspections are for conditions like were mentioned previously — the smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, adequate appliances and those sorts of things.”

Jarratt’s reference to conditions mentioned previously was a reference to public comments made by Audrey Lee during Citizen’s Time. 

Lee said some of the Berkley Court apartments lacked smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, air conditioning and heat, pest control and hot water, and she also said there are broken-down appliances and backed-up sewage, ultimately asking if this constituted a non-livable condition.

Jarratt told the council, “I’m happy to reach out to HUD, and I’ve made myself a note to look at when the last annual inspection was done to make sure that the property owner is in compliance from a HUD perspective.”

She noted that it was city staff that initially made HUD aware of the explosion.

“So I’ll reach out to HUD in the morning and find out when the last annual inspection was done and what the score was,” she said. “You all will recall several years ago when there was great discussion about Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority and those scores, the A, B, C, D rating score. I will also have HUD provide me with what the latest rating score was.”

Ward 1 Councilman Mark R. Kitchen said several citizens have asked him what the city was doing about Berkley Court.

“A lot of people think the city is just sitting around waiting for the property manager, but I can assure you, the city manager and her staff have worked around the clock for 23 days doing everything we can do,” he said, noting that the situation cannot be fixed overnight.

He thanked Jarratt and her staff for their work, as did McLemore.

“Ms. Jarratt has been on top of this ever since the night of the explosion,” McLemore said.

Then he noted that there are some “misconceptions going on.”

He said there was a TV news report that said that tanks were going to be delivered the week of May 8.

“I wanted to let people know — and I checked with Ms. Jarratt — the news had it wrong,” McLemore said. “So don’t go by that. As has been stated, this is a very complex situation.”

To share with the public some of the details that have been thought about and that are being discussed, he noted that he has asked Jarratt about the transformers associated with the Berkley Court area.

“We could put a bigger transformer out there, but the wires that are going to that complex were put in some 40 years ago, and I don’t know if the wires that are going to the transformers will be able to accommodate a load of 75 new water heaters,” he said. “So we could change the breakers, we could change the water heaters, but we have to make sure that the wiring will accommodate that additional load that is asking for from the transformer, because we don’t want any electrical fires.

“So the delay, regardless of what anybody might say — it is for the safety of the people in Berkley Court,” he said.

He said everyone involved would love to pull up tomorrow with a truckload of hot water heaters and begin hooking them up to restore hot water to the residents.

“But we don’t want to do it under any risk, and I think you can all understand, once you turn on 75 more water heaters, that line comes together somewhere by the transformer, and will that line be able to accommodate such power?” he said. “Because it wasn’t designed that way when it was initially put in. So they may have to dig it up, which may take longer.

“So please take these things into consideration,” he added. “We’re doing everything that we can from the city’s perspective, and we won’t pass it off. So we just want you to know, it’s not the city’s fault, but the city is doing everything we can to address it.”

McLemore then transitioned to the subject of something the city can do.

“As a result of these people heating their hot water on their electric stove, their utility bills are going to be increased, and I think that is within our power, that we can make some sort of an adjustment or instruct the city management to make an adjustment for those people in Berkley for their utility bills to accommodate for the extra electricity that they’re having to use to heat hot water,” he said. “We can’t do anything about the hot water heaters, but we can do something about giving them a break on their electricity.”

Mayor Frank M. Rabil suggested McLemore’s motion include acknowledgement that Jarratt will need to figure out the details of a utility bill adjustment for Berkley Court residents.

“Our intent is to help them, but I think we don’t know what level of help we can provide until you, (Ms. Jarratt,) do some research for us and tell us what can be done, how it can be done, so that it is equitable on both sides there for those that are staying (in their apartments) and those that have left,” Rabil said.