Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca’s Board of Public Works unanimously voted last week to deny a local church’s request to be compensated for repairs to water pipes that froze late in February, the coldest month in Ithaca history.
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Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church was forced to hire a private contractor to restore running water after learning that the city was backlogged and would not be able to help for multiple days.
“We felt we could not wait for the City to get to us,” said St. Paul’s in a letter to the board, citing its three school programs, multiple community groups, and Sunday service.
While the church paid over $3,700 in repairs, it requested compensation only for what the Department of Public Works would have charged had the church waited. St. Paul’s was surprised to learn at the meeting, though, that their cost was actually $700 less than what the city’s would have been.
On April 13, Mayor Svante Myrick and members of the Board of Public Works denied the church’s request.
By hiring an outside contractor, the board ruled, the church had chosen to forgo the free option of waiting for the city’s repairmen. Bill Goldsmith, a member of the board, put it bluntly, saying, “If they decided they couldn’t wait, that’s too bad.”
Kevin Miller, administrative ministries coordinator for St. Paul’s, responded to the decision by saying, “There’s ambiguity about whether the city still considers it their responsibility if the water freeze is in the street. It doesn’t seem like that is rational; homeowners and businesses can’t deal with that.”
However, Common Council liaison to the BPW, Donna Fleming, argued that “it was a hard winter and not everybody can be bailed out, particularly people who don’t pay taxes in the first place,” referring to the church’s tax-exempt status.
East Seneca St. resident Seth Soulstein also attended the meeting seeking reimbursement for money he paid a contractor to thaw pipes at his home this past winter. Soulstein said he could live with the ruling but questioned whether St. Paul’s tax-exempt status should influence the BPW’s decision, saying that the board “can’t hold that against an organization when [the city] agreed that it should be tax-exempt because it provides other services.”
When asked about the issue, Mayor Myrick said that “the board would have come to the same conclusion” regardless of whether the church paid taxes or not, but that its exemption “was a factor” in the final determination.
“We did give people an option,” said Mayor Myrick, further explaining the ruling, “we could fix it for free, or they could fix it sooner, but they would have to pay. My sincere hope is that this never happens again.”
This winter, three water mains (on Highland Place, W. Seneca, and W. York streets) froze and broke, and 78 individual properties in Ithaca experienced frozen pipes, forcing the city to spend more than $70,000 on thawing services, an unprecedented amount, according to city officials.
The large number of freezes also resulted in a separate request from citizens who ran their taps during especially cold periods at the direction of the city and wanted compensation for their excess water bills.
The city chose to reimburse homes and businesses for any amount over their regular water bill as long as the owners could make a case that their pipes were in danger of freezing.
Miller, who works full-time at the church, said that St. Paul’s began running a tap during this year’s cold spell and was thankful to hear that this sort of preventative measure would not be punished. Yet, after the ruling on the pipe repairs, Miller said he feels that the city is “just getting through this winter. If many, many more places started having problems, they would be forced to add staff or increase their services. They’re still going to have issues down the road.”