While help will always be welcome, Wyoming Valley Levee overseer Christopher Belleman said he can no longer count on flood preparation assistance from the Luzerne County road and bridge department due to its staff reductions.
“I have to face reality. With their lack of resources, we can’t rely on them as we have in the past,” said Belleman, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.
Instead, Belleman wants to obtain proposals from outside companies interested in providing “as needed” services installing flood gates and performing other work that has been shouldered heavily by road and bridge when the Susquehanna River rises, Belleman said.
The county’s road and bridge department once had more than 60 employees, Belleman said.
Staffing cuts in recent years and difficulties filling vacant positions have brought the department’s current count to 16, county Manager C. David Pedri said Monday.
This year’s budget calls for 23 workers in the department, according to a position listing.
Despite rounds of advertisements, filling road and bridge vacancies has been a challenge, particularly equipment operators, Pedri told council in March. The budget funds 12 operators, leaving three vacancies at this time.
Councilman Robert Schnee has blamed the $25,000 starting salary, which equates to $12.02 per hour, saying the county could not find a backhoe operator for that amount.
The compensation is set by union contract, Pedri said.
Pedri said he has “no issue” with the flood authority exploring outside assistance. The county will continue its “all hands on deck” approach in floods and other emergencies, he said.
The levee system spans 16 miles and includes 13 pump stations, more than 120 underground wells to relieve water pressure and openings that must be filled with gates, panels and sandbags, Belleman said.
In total, 7,300 sandbags and systems of gates and aluminum logs are required to close all 20 levee gaps, including two levee portal openings in Wilkes-Barre and at the Market Street Bridge, Belleman has said.
Each pump station contains 39 deep-well pumps that must be monitored and lubricated after activation so they don’t burn out, he said.
That’s too much for the authority’s seven levee maintenance technicians, Belleman said.
“Seven guys can’t do it all,” Belleman said.
If the authority grants approval to seek proposals Tuesday, Belleman said he will develop specific duties that can be completed by outside entities under the direction of authority employees, he said. Depending on the response and cost, agreements may be approved with two or three companies, he said.
He also wants to seek proposals for assistance with post-flood debris removal along the levee slopes and toe.
Scrambling to find contractors when the “flood waters are lapping” is not in the interest of public safety, he said.
“We would run the risk of not finding someone or properly preparing someone to assist,” he said.
The seeking of proposals is in line with Belleman’s other initiative rounding up and training volunteer engineers and emergency responders to help patrol the levee during flooding.
Approximately 40 volunteers, including several engineers, attended the first training session in June, which focused largely on how to spot potential levee problems — including sand boils, seepage, scouring and sloughing — and methods to address them.
In the record September 2011 Susquehanna flood, some sections of the levee had to be reinforced with sandbags and several hundred tons of rock and dirt to plug paths under the levee that jeopardized its stability.
Belleman said he is preparing a second training session for the group in coming months.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.