Metro-East News

Town didn’t have to flood. Repair money ‘wasted’ on political hirings, Prenzler says.

Pontoon Beach flooding could have been avoided

If MESD had lowered Horseshoe Lake level, Pontoon Beach and Mitchell flooding would not have been as severe
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If MESD had lowered Horseshoe Lake level, Pontoon Beach and Mitchell flooding would not have been as severe

Two massive electric pumps that could have prevented much of the flooding in early May in Pontoon Beach didn’t work because taxpayer money collected to maintain them were “wasted” on unneeded political hirings, two county officials said.

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler and Steve Adler, who Prenzler appointed executive director of the Metro East Sanitary District levee board, said much of the high water in the county’s flood-prone areas, particularly Nameoki Township, could have been prevented if district supervisors had planned ahead and the pumps had worked.

“They were hiring Democrats. It was ridiculous. This was money wasted. They hired more laborers than we had equipment to put them on. It wasn’t even close,” Adler said. Prenzler, a Republican, said he agreed with his director’s assessment.

Four 920-horsepower pumps so powerful that together they can empty an Olympic-sized swimming pool in about a minute, would have greatly helped limit flooding if they had all been operating, Adler said. The plan was to open the flood gates on Horseshoe Lake, allowing the water level to drop about a foot, making room for millions of gallons of flood runoff to drain from neighborhoods into the lake.

But with just two of the big pumps operating, the crucial North Pumping Station at the terminus of Cahokia Creek just north of East St. Louis would itself have been overwhelmed and probably destroyed if the lake level had been dropped. Both men said all four pumps were needed to handle the increased water from the lake and 10 inches of rain and pump it over the levee into the Mississippi River.

“We talked with the MESD workers during the flood and they were aggravated because they knew this didn’t have to happen,” Prenzler said. “If that lake had been dropped it would have added a tremendous amount of (flooding) storage capacity.”

“We could never have handled it with two pumps out,” pump operator Scott Hillman added.

Adler said the MESD has lost $6.8 million in the last seven years because of several factors, including paying too many salaries. The district has an annual budget of $8 million.

“We have plenty of money if they would have just spent it properly. ... But they hired people just because they were on Bob’s softball team,” Adler said, referring to former levee board executive director Robert Shipley, who Prenzler dismissed in May along with all three board members from Madison County.

The board has five members, three from Madison County and two from St. Clair County where County Board Chairman Mark Kern selects members.

“If we were in a financial position to fix our own pumps we wouldn’t be flooding and wouldn’t have to depend on the charity of the (Army) Corps of Engineers,” Adler said. The corps will fix a pump at no charge but repairs can take a year or more. It would take about three months to get a pump repaired privately, he said.

New board member Don Sawicki, a licensed electrical engineer, said, “We can fix this if we just use common sense when it comes to money.” The other new board members are former Madison County Board member Helen Hawkins, a Democrat, and Charles Brinza.

Shipley could not be reached for comment. The BND reported in 2015 that Shipley crashed his district truck five times in three years and eventually needed a driver while on the job because of a medical condition.

“They hired the son-in-law of the mayor of Granite City. People were hired who had no jobs. There was nothing for them to do,” Adler said. “We hired lawn mowers and kept them all year.” Finally, in March 2016, the board enacted a hiring freeze except for temporary positions.

Upon taking the director’s job, Adler laid off 10 full time employees including Mayor Ed Hagnauer’s son-in-law. Another 10 full-time positions were made seasonal, saving the district about $1 million overall.

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Steve Adler is dwarfed by the massive pump motors inside the pumping station where the Cahokia Canal enters the Mississippi River. Tim Vizer

Today, the district has 40 full-time employees and five part-time workers. When Shipley left, the district had 52 full-time workers and eight part-timers, according to district payroll records.

Hagnauer said his son-in-law was fully qualified to do flood control work and contended that blaming the district’s problems on hiring was simplistic. He said the levee district’s operation of the Landsdowne Sewer District, which services East St. Louis, Venice, Brooklyn and Madison, significantly depletes the annual budget because users are not charged enough.

Prenzler agreed that Landsdowne is a financial drain, but insisted that lowering the lake at the right time and clearing existing drainage ditches was key to preventing much of what residents have come to believe is inevitable spring flooding. MESD crews are currently at work clearing a quarter-mile long ditch that drains into Horseshoe Lake.

During the May flood, Prenzler said he was, “Looking out at a field of water. I realized I wasn’t just a member of the public. I was the County Board chairman. I had to do something.”

Prenzler and Adler, who was then an employee of a neighboring special sewer district, heard from MESD employees in the field that dropping the lake could reduce flooding but that two pumps were out and the increased flow would wreck the North Station. Earlier, Prenzler said he heard from a levee district supervisor, who no longer works there, that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources forbids the lowering of the lake because of concern for sportsmen who fish and hunt ducks.

We have plenty of money if they would have just spent it properly. ... But they hired people just because they were on Bob’s softball team.

Metro East Sanitary District Executive Director Steve Adler

Nevertheless, Prenzler obtained the cell phone number for IDNR Director Wayne Rosenthal who, according to Prenzler, had no objection to lowering the level of Horseshoe Lake. Rosenthal confirmed the call for a BND reporter.

“But by then, it was too late,” said Prenzler. Pontoon Beach had already flooded. The levee district employees had warned about the broken pumps. “There wasn’t much we could do.”

Both North Pumping Station pumps are still out of action, with one at a St. Louis repair shop and the other still at the pumping station. Each could cost as much as $350,000 to repair.

Pontoon Beach Mayor Mike Pagano said he’s in favor of dropping the lake a foot or so before predicted heavy rains hit, but contended that would not completely solve the problem. He said his village government has gone $500,000 into debt over the construction of two, 54-inch in diameter storm drains to handle storm water flowing from Long Lake that, in turn, inundates portions of Pontoon Beach on its way to Horseshoe Lake and Cahokia Creek.

Pagano said a better solution would be for the levee district, which covers Madison County and St. Clair County, to institute an annual fee for residents of the watershed to the north where significant amounts of storm water are generated and flow toward Pontoon Beach to the south.

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Scott Hillman, a pump operator with the Metro East Sanitary District, holds open a plywood safety cover over a hole in the floor of the East St. Louis riverfront pumping station. An enormous pump normally sits inside a huge metal tube in the hole and rests underwater here, where the Cahokia Canal flows into the Mississippi River. The pump has been removed for servicing. Tim Vizer

“They really need to pay their share,” Pagano said, adding that significantly increased income would allow for the construction of more drainage projects. Currently, Pontoon Beach and other MESD residents pay $35 a month for flood protection. Residents who live at or above 410 feet above sea level do not have to pay. The elevation is called “the 410 line.” The surface of Horseshoe lake is usually at the 402 to 404-foot level.

Two of the three former levee board members dismissed by Prenzler were reached. Former board member Frank Laub declined to comment because of a death in his family.

“If there’s any blame, you can blame me,” said Bill Hanfelder, a Collinsville farmer renowned as a horseradish producer, who spent 18 years on the MESD board until Prenzler made a clean sweep in May.

“I feel the entire pump station needs to be replaced. It’s really old. I know if I’ve got a piece of machinery that needs to be replaced, that’s what I do first.”

“You can lay blame all the way back to Harry Truman, if you want to, but that doesn’t really help.”

Another former board member James Pennekamp, who had been in the $15,000-a-year job for just 18 months, said, “All of these issues with MESD, it’s a hydrological question. I’m not sure I can answer it.

“I don’t want to contradict anyone’s statement. I don’t want to be controversial,” Pennekamp said, “But we were trying to address multiple issues. Not just hiring. I was most concerned about revenue.”

As for the pump failures, he said, “I don’t know why they were not addressed. We were always hearing about the North Pumping Station. It really needs to be replaced.”

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer