Sep 7

Raw feelings remain over repainted fire hydrants

Black fire hydrants in Kyle and Buda are getting a fresh coat of red paint, but the longstanding resentment their color has caused between city officials and a local water utility won’t be glossed over so easily.

Under a 2007 state law, utility companies were supposed to put black paint on hydrants that might lack sufficient water flow to fight a fire. But that law, meant to alert responders to a hydrant’s capability, had an unintended consequence: Not wanting to face lawsuits over hydrants that might fail in an emergency, some utilities played it safe and painted them black.

A state bill passed this summer now says hydrants meeting a certain flow standard must be painted red.

Monarch Utilities, which serves more than 1,000 customers in Kyle and Buda, will spend the next few weeks repainting 80 black hydrants that have met those flow requirements for years. The company repainted the first two in ceremonies Wednesday afternoon.

Kyle officials weren’t exactly popping the champagne, though. While she believes the red coat of paint is long overdue, Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson declined an invitation to Wednesday’s ceremony. Johnson wrote that Monarch Utilities is not painting the hydrants out of “community or corporate responsibility” but because it is “compelled to by the State of Texas.”

The city had asked Monarch Utilities multiple times to paint the hydrants red, noted Kyle spokesman Jerry Hendrix.

“They painted them black overnight a few years ago,” Hendrix said. “They didn’t consult us. They didn’t consult the neighborhood.”

Firefighters still used the black hydrants during emergencies, said Beth Smith, president of Hays County Emergency Services District No. 5. But painting the hydrants red would assure residents they were safe in the event of a fire, Hendrix said, and could result in lower insurance premiums.

In Buda, some black hydrants are in an area with office buildings, which had to spent additional money to meet code requirements, said assistant city manager Brian LaBorde. Some businesses installed their own red fire hydrants, he said.

Gary Rose, a director of operations at SouthWest Water Company, which owns Monarch Utilities, said the company acquired the fire hydrants in 2005 and painted them black two years later because of liability concerns.

There’s also disagreement between the city and Monarch Utilities about which black fire hydrants must be repainted. In Kyle, the utility plans to repaint most of its hydrants, which are in the Amberwood and Indian Paintbrush subdivisions.

State law says the utility only has to repaint hydrants that currently have high enough flow. But a new city ordinance requires the utility to bring all hydrants with insufficient flow up to par, and then coat them in red.

Rose said Monarch Utilities has conducted tests showing that hydrants in the more rural Rolling Hills, Dove Meadows and Green Pastures aren’t up to snuff. The utility doesn’t plan to improve or repaint those hydrants, Rose said.

Emergency Services District No. 5, which includes the Kyle Fire Department, ran tests showing the hydrants in question do have sufficient flow, Hendrix said.

Jim Boyle, a lawyer for the city of Kyle, said he believed the state law assumed that all of Monarch Utilities’ hydrants had high enough flow and would be repainted.

“If there is a problem, we’re going to work to get everything up to the standard,” Boyle said.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who helped draft the law, said he wasn’t aware there were hydrants near Kyle with insufficient flow, but he thought companies should be protected from having to incur the expense of fixing subpar hydrants.

The few black hydrants in Austin haven’t posed any problem, said Jason Hill, a spokesman for Austin’s water utility. That’s because Austin uses a different color coding system for hydrants, and black ones must meet the same flow requirements as those that are red or silver, Hill said.

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