When the City of Helotes meets for the regularly scheduled meeting for December one of the most important issues on the agenda is the HVAC system for the Fire Station. You may ask yourself why is this being discussed again?
Tom Schoolcraft told Council, the Helotes firefighters, and the citizens of Helotes during the May election that mold did not exist at the fire station and that all issues with the fire station had been fixed.
Schoolcraft printed on his Facebook page, stated in Council Chambers that the story inside the Echo was incorrect and that most of the information was erroneous.
City Administrator, Rich Schroder, while campaigning for a Council position in Boerne also those who asked that the information inside the Echo was incorrect that all issues with the HVAC system had been completely fixed.
In June, after the election, Fire Chief Walton Daugherty arranged for Argus Environmental Consultants to conduct a new inspection of the HVAC system in the fire station. Upon completion of the inspection, it was determined that mold had once again invaded the HVAC system and made itself a home. It was also determined the recommendations to combat the mold issue released by the previous two inspection reports had not been followed.
When preparing the first story to discuss the mold issue inside the fire station in October of 2016 The Echo learned it was recommended to reconfigure the air intake system, because the current HVAC system was pulling too much outside air into the building and the equipment could not remove enough moisture to prevent mold from growing in the system.
The City continued to contract with Middleman Construction and the Beyer Boys to fix the broken system installed by them. As of June of 2016, the City of Helotes has spent over $33,000 with Middleman and Beyer Boys to fix the problem. When a new open records request was submitted to determine additional money spent to fix the HVAC system the response received was “The City no longer identifies invoices and payments for specific purposes. If you want to sit down and examine each invoice and payment you can determine the total.” City officials estimate the total to be over $50,000. This estimate does not include the continued work by the Beyer Boys for monthly inspections of the HVAC system through September of 2017.
Daugherty presented the inspection report to both Schoolcraft and Schroeder when it was made available. He waited two months for action from both individuals and they remained silent. In early September, tired and frustrated from inaction at City Hall, Daugherty shut down one of the main HVAC system units. He borrowed from a friend a portable unit so the firefighters would have cool air inside the station and not have to worry about mold.
The fire station looks like a location for the movie “Breakout” with orange hoses running through the door, door openings taped up with black plastic. Four the last four months this is what has provided relief for our firefighters.
Daugherty began discussions with an engineer to develop a plan to combat the mold. The plan designed by Air Quality is to in essence remove the current HVAC system and replace it with a new one.
In November, Schoolcraft informed Daugherty he could continue with his meetings but could not spend any money.
After meeting continued resistance from the Mayor and City Administrator, Daugherty held another closed door with Schoolcraft discussing the portable a/c unit and a plan of action.
According to an individual inside City Administration, the Mayor questioned the authenticity of Daugherty’s information, prompting the removal of the a/c panel inside the firehouse to discover mold all over the panel.
The City once again started negotiations with Air Quality to plan for a way to fix the mold. In frustration of continued rebuffs by the Mayor and worried about the safety of his men, Chief Daugherty decided to retire from the Helotes Fire Station.
Schoolcraft will present Air Quality’s bid to Council on Thursday night to fix the HVAC system in the firehouse. The vote will now be in Council’s hands.
Start of the problem
The problem inside the fire station started in 2014. The Mayor received two independent studies done in 2014 and the other in 2015 detailing high levels of mold inside the firehouse. Mold remediation was performed removing the mold from the system at least twice. The Mayor declared, like President Bush, “Mission Accomplished.” Schoolcraft refused to bring the issue before Council because he said, “It is a routine matter not needing Council approval.”
In June of 2017, testing of the building shows the mold problem still exists. The firefighters have battled this issue for three years and depending upon approval of the Air Quality bid and completion of work could be four years.
Firefighter moral remains at an all-time low. They feel neglected and ignored by City Hall and the community. Since January 2017, six firefighters have left, excluding Chief Daugherty, and whispers indicate more may be leaving because of the City’s lack of action to address this issue.
When soliciting applications for Fire Chief only 9 applications were received and one withdrew during the process. Those within the firefighting industry cite Helotes’ poor pay and the mold situation as reasons why the City did not receive better applicants.
Schoolcraft and some of Council questioned the “dangers to one’s health because of mold.” The American Medical Association does not list a specified level as too much mold because each individual is affected differently. However, the AMA warns mold can cause a decrease in concentration, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and itchy and watery eyes among common problems of being exposed to mold.
Council maintained there was only one individual complaining of mold and released his medical history to say his previous career caused the problem not the City of Helotes.
At least five firefighters have reported health issues because of the mold. Working in a burning building firefighters do not want to lose concentration, be fatigued, or have difficulty breathing. This is a great recipe for death.
The City taxpayers have already spent over $50,000 to “fix” the problem. The problem still exists. Council will discuss authorizing another $65,000 to “fix” the problem. This does not include the cost of the air quality studies and maintenance contract with the Beyer Boys.
This is coming at a time when the reserves for the City of Helotes total 4 to 4.5 months. If the reserves fall below 3 months it will affect the City’s ability to borrow and the bond rating of the City.
The City is prepared to spend over $580,000 this year for a dispatch center that does not provide a benefit for the City. The services could be provided by Bexar County for free. The new 9-1-1 center is open, I encourage people to tour the facility and compare it to Helotes Dispatch.
Sales tax revenue is up inside the City of Helotes, however; when you pay out the 380 agreements between the City and developers the gain in income will be negligible.
The City of Helotes will have spent in excess of $120,000 to combat the problem. The City has already started canceling events held in previous years to save money for the City.
Council has failed in their duty to our employees and our City. The Council members were elected to oversee the city of Helotes, provide for the safety of the employees, and the safety of the citizens. Do you want a firefighter or group of firefighters combating mold health issues (lack of concentration, fatigue, difficulty breathing) to attempt to rescue you from an accident or save your burning house?
In reviewing Council agendas, and record requests, since this story broke one or two Council members have sent an email asking for an update; no Council member has placed the item on the agenda demanding action. Only one Council member visited with the fire chief and this was over 9 months ago. Council has continued to remain silent. Tom Schoolcraft brought the current agenda item.
The Fire Station is not the only building to be suffering from mold infestation. The new police station is in worse condition than the fire station. No one will discuss this issue. Irony at its best, when Public Works were notified about mold in the building, according to information requests, “They painted a coat of KILZ on the mold, declared the situation killed.” One officer has to wipe his office down weekly because of the mold. Council, the Mayor, and everyone else remains good little boys and girls for Christmas and say not a peep.