Water Services tries a pre-emptive strike.

Water Foul 

Water Services tries a pre-emptive strike.

First a flood struck Rodney Gordon's business, then a whirlwind.

On September 12, the owner of Talkn Headz hair salon walked downstairs to his Talkn Threadz clothing store and found himself shin-deep in water. Outside, a water pipe at the corner of 71st and Prospect had burst and flooded the intersection.

After Gordon surveyed the damage downstairs -- boxes of new clothes, two vacuum cleaners, a water heater, a laptop computer and several files and invoices were soaked -- he called the city's Water Services Department to report the incident.

Within hours of his call, Gordon witnessed something amazing: City Hall efficiency.

First, a company called Service Master sent workers to pump out all the standing water and dry the room with industrial-strength fans and dehumidifiers. Next, an investigator with the Kansas City Law Department appeared and interviewed Gordon and his brother, Jamaal, the store manager.

But a week later, the investigator delivered some confusing bad news to Jamaal. "The first thing that came out of his mouth was that they're not going to pay the claim," Jamaal says. "What claim?"

"We hadn't even put in a claim yet," Rodney adds.

Actually, they had. Simply by placing the call to City Hall, the brothers had initiated a type of claims investigation as common to Kansas City as the pothole. The reason the city responded so quickly was simple: Practice makes perfect.

Last year, Kansas City's Water Services Department compared the number of water-main breaks here to those in six similar cities. The benchmark cities averaged just seven such breaks per 100 miles of pipeline; mains in Kansas City broke 54 times every 100 miles.

So far this year, the Law Department has investigated 223 claims filed by homeowners and business operators whose properties have been damaged by water-main breaks; the city's lawyers also investigated 135 claims filed after sewer malfunctions. But even though the city has handed over checks totaling more than $250,000 to some of those property owners, it denies most claims.

When a waterlogged citizen files a claim, city investigators study work orders going back several years to determine whether water department workers are at fault. If so, the city pays. But if a pipe bursts because no one has replaced it in 100 years, the city denies responsibility.

And that leaves property owners such as Rodney Gordon in a frustrating catch-22. Gordon's taxes help pay for maintenance on Kansas City's antiquated infrastructure. But because the city hasn't adequately repaired and replaced those lines, he also pays when a pipe busts.

For six years, Gordon's Talkn Headz has brightened the relatively dreary Prospect Avenue. (Talkn Threadz has been open for about a year.) Talkn Threadz has been closed since the flood, leaving Gordon and his brother stuck with several boxes of ruined inventory and a sales room reeking of mildew.

"You send Service Master out to take care of it, but you're not liable?" Rodney asks.

City Attorney Sam Mumma says, well, yeah.

Mumma says the city owes it to taxpayers to be shrewd when deciding which claims are paid and which are denied. He adds that the city contracts with Service Master as a "customer courtesy."

Things are supposed to be getting better, though. Earlier this year, the City Council and water department agreed on a ten-year plan to streamline operations while speeding up capital improvements.

"Infrastructure is our biggest concern because it is very old in many parts of Kansas City," says Donna Brice, manager of the water department's developmental division. "The water department is roughly 127 years old, and I believe we probably have some pipe in the ground that old."

The city has already begun work on 170 miles of pipeline, though completion of that project will probably require a new bond issue.

Not that any of that helps Gordon, who must now file a claim with his insurance company. This time he's painfully aware that he's doing so. "Who's going to get penalized in the end?" Gordon asks rhetorically.

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