Ocean Ridge: Accident uncovers hydrant neglect; town races to catch up

Trash bags taped over hydrants alert firefighters that the hydrants are not in top form and still need repair. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Dan Moffett

Ocean Ridge caught a lucky break in April when a motorist swerved off A1A and slammed into a fire hydrant near the corner of Thompson Street.
Wayne Cameron, the town’s building official and newly named public works supervisor, quickly arrived on the scene to inspect the damage.
What Cameron found was extensive corrosion on the hose connector valves that ultimately led him to check every one of the town’s 141 fire hydrants.
He found dozens that were in awful shape and posed a potential danger. Cameron, who came to Ocean Ridge from Greenacres a year ago, and Tracey Stevens, the former town clerk who took over as acting town manager in February, discovered that routine maintenance to the hydrants may not have been done since 2009. The maintenance should be ongoing.
Though Ocean Ridge buys its water and fire services from Boynton Beach, the town owns the infrastructure, and with it the responsibility for keeping it in sound condition.
“This is a public safety issue,” Stevens said. “It’s going to be a big cost to get the system up where it needs to be.”
It turned out that four of the town’s hydrants were either missing or not working at all, and 32 were functioning below acceptable standards.
Police Chief Hal Hutchins and his two lieutenants joined forces with Cameron and public works employee Billy Armstrong to make as many repairs as possible as quickly as possible.
“Numerous members of the staff have been working every day since we discovered this issue,” Hutchins said. “It’s time-consuming and it is an expensive thing to fix.”
Stevens said it will cost the town close to $100,000 to get all the hydrants working: at least $45,000 for the four that need to be replaced and another $40,000 for six that need to be overhauled.
Going forward, annual maintenance costs, which years ago were not reflected specifically in the town’s budget, could run around $30,000.
Cameron, who took over public works supervision in April, said the hydrant network was repaired and operating efficiently enough to give adequate protection to the entire town before the end of May.
“We took immediate action,” he said. “I’m confident we have eliminated the immediate threat.”
How could the maintenance have been neglected for so long?
Mayor Steve Coz said it was poor performance by an employee.
“This has been derelict,” Coz said during the town meeting on May 6. “The person responsible for maintenance has been derelict, and it wasn’t discovered until recently.”
Stevens, who came to Ocean Ridge three years ago, is reluctant to assign blame but says the public works supervisor has been responsible for getting the maintenance done. Town commissioners recently approved hiring an employee to fill a vacancy in that department.
“We don’t want to point fingers at anyone,” she said, “but I can tell you what the hierarchy is. The public works supervisor reports to the town manager.”
In other business, the Town Commission voted 5-0 to approve a plan for an A1A crosswalk near the Crown Colony Club and Fayette Drive. Based on a traffic study completed this spring, the plan now goes to the Florida Department of Transportation for review, a process that likely will take months to complete.

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