DON OCHACHER ASKED WHY HIS HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION WAS BILLED
$2,555 A YEAR FOR ‘FIRE SERVICE.’ THE ANSWER: IT’S A MASSIVE
DWP RIPOFF OF RATEPAYERS WITH PRIVATE HYDRANTS.
By Steve Silkin
PART 1: THE NEWS
THE LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT of Water and Power has been charging property owners with private hydrants at least $7.5 million a year for “fire service” which in fact is nothing of the sort, and in exchange for that money does absolutely nothing: zero, nada, zilch.
Additionally, when ratepayers with hydrants on private property call to ask about the charges and services, phone representatives have recently said the utility tests service to hydrants—a blatant lie because the city’s Fire Department does that.
To make this whole sordid case even more revolting, DWP does not pass along any portion of the revenue to the Fire Department, not the least dime, while the utility pays the firefighters $5 for each hydrant tested on sidewalks and other public property.
By best estimates, DWP charges property owners $2,555 for each hydrant, and there may be more than 3,000 private hydrants in the city. This insanely rampant thievery now totals at least $100 million, because it’s been going on for at least 14 years.
The massive fraud has been uncovered by Conquistador, a Los Angeles startup publishing company, after an investigation into a bill for “fire service” at a townhouse complex in Woodland Hills.
“This is an outrage,” said Don Ochacher, president of the Villa Madrid Homeowners Association. He estimates that DWP owes Villa Madrid and the neighboring Villa Granada, which share the hydrant, at least $35,700. “This should not be happening.”
The DWP responds that in fact, even though the bill says “fire service” it is really for “capacity” that may be needed one day for firefighting and “maintenance.”
Private fire hydrants are common at townhouse complexes such as the Villas, but they’re also at apartments, shopping centers such as the nearby Westfield shopping centers, Topanga, Village and Promenade, light industrial and office park areas such as Warner Center, and even hospitals such as Kaiser Permanente and educational institutions such as Los Angeles Pierce College and high schools such as Taft. A Fire Department official said San Pedro is dotted with them, so they are also no doubt prevalent at warehouses, heavy industrial areas and the ports.
Fire Department Inspector Robert Duff, head of the Hydrants and Access Unit in the Fire Marshall’s Office, confirmed that Ochacher was the first person in the history of Los Angeles to question the DWP’s “fire service” bill. Duff, who is also the department’s liaison with the utility, said he had never heard of the “fire service” charge before last week when contacted by Conquistador.
“That fee sounds outrageous,” Duff said. “I would love for them to explain what they’re charging for.”
DWP was asked to justify the cost of its billing. Here is the response, in two parts for ease of reading—if that’s an expression that can be used in any way related to the text created by some person or machine at the utility:
“Private fire protection service is a standby service … that is made available to our customers on demand to meet emergencies. Although most private fire services are rarely used, LADWP must be ready to provide water in adequate quantities and pressures at all times throughout the distribution system.”
Take a little break here to catch your breath and defrost your mind, if you’ve followed so far. Ready for more? (But first pause for one more moment to correct an inaccuracy: It’s not “on demand.” Private fire hydrants are required by the Fire Department.)
Deep breath, here comes more:
“The supply, treatment, pumping, storage and distribution facilities are built and maintained to provide the extra capacity needed to meet fire flow… The fixed monthly service availability charges are in proportion to the capacity/size of the service provided and offset LADWP’s capital and maintenance costs.”
In other words, blahblah gotta be ready, blahblahblah infrastructure, blahblah need more capacity just in case blahblah bullshit. But finally: blahblahblah blah blah capital and maintenance— WE WANT THE MONEY. DA MOOLAH. FOR CAPITAL AND MAINTENANCE. Not for “fire service.” At last something honest. What Dillinger said. Go where the money is.
The “extra capacity” argument doesn’t stand up to the easiest logical stress test, though. Across the street from the Villas is an apartment complex. DWP-owned hydrants are on the sidewalks, tested annually by the Fire Department at the same time as the one at the Villas. The apartment complex does not have to pay for “extra capacity.” There is no need for “extra capacity” across the street, so there’s no need at the Villas, which use the same infrastructure.
And given the constant water main gushers in the city, everyone in Los Angeles knows that DWP’s concept of “maintenance” is based on hope instead of reality. DWP doesn’t do maintenance. DWP waits until something breaks and then does emergency repair.
DWP pays the Fire Department to service the utility’s hydrants on city property. That payment is $5 per hydrant. There are about 57,000 hydrants on sidewalks and other public areas, so the total is $285,000 each year. Meaning that even if DWP were using the revenue from private hydrants to subsidize the testing of public hydrants, there would still be at least $7.2 million in theft.
I had anticipated DWP might try to use that as an excuse—I tried to think like a thieving bureaucrat—so I did the math in advance to be ready. But the utility didn’t go there. That’s good, I guess. Right? Or does that mean that deep down inside me there is an evil scheming cubicle rat, more or less devious and dishonest as the language-generating machine that created DWP’s text? (They hadn’t programmed it perfectly. It let the truth slip out when it said “capacity and maintenance.”)
Duff also had anticipated some of DWP’s possible justifications. He said the utility might claim infrastructure needs, and as seen above, did just that. But he noted that the only infrastructure that would be relevant is one pipe from the water main to the hydrant.
But even if that pipe were to need replacing once every 10 years, Duff agreed there is no pipe in the world of that type that would cost anywhere near $25,550, maybe not even if it was gold-plated. Diamond-encrusted, possibly; depending on the carats, the clarity, the cut—right? (And as residents of Los Angeles well know, even if the pipe did need replacing every 10 years, DWP wouldn’t be capable of doing that. Not enough time, not enough money, aging infrastructure, blahblahblah SOUND OF GUSHER BLASTING UP FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET blahblah bullshit.)
Duff said that the only private hydrant charge he’s aware of is the $534 one-time cost for the permit and inspection. Anything else could only be for the Fire Department’s testing and any water use.
He said he was going to inquire about the charge at his next meeting with DWP, scheduled for shortly after this was published, paraphrasing Ricky Ricardo’s routine requirement of his wife Lucy:
“DWP, you got some ’splainin’ to do!”
PART 2: THE REACTION
Timothy Blood, a San Diego class action attorney who represents ratepayers in a long-running legal battle over the utility’s lunatic overcharges that have tormented Angelenos since a billing system revamp in 2013, said he was both surprised and not surprised by the lying and theft.
“This is another example, and a particularly egregious one, of an organization that is out of control and unaccountable,” he said. “Even with the authorization to do so, the fact that DWP cannot answer basic questions from ratepayers is further evidence of DWP’s poor management and disdain for its customers.”
Lisa Hansen, chief of staff for Councilman Bob Blumenfield, whose district includes the Villas, said the councilman was surprised to learn of the issue.
“Councilmember Blumenfield never heard of this fee, and if properties are being charged for fire services they are not given it’s shocking and appalling,” she said. “LADWP needs to immediately explain this charge and address this issue.”
There are 14 fire hydrants on the grounds of Los Angeles Pierce College, a part of the community college district. Under DWP’s standard rate for the hydrants such as the one at the Villas, that would be almost $36,000.
Bruce Roski, associate vice president for administrative services, said that in general the college processes its bills and the district pays them. So the bills would have to go through Pierce for approval before district payment. Roski said clerks process the bills.
Another college official said that if a clerk saw a bill from DWP for “fire services” for about $13,000 for the 130-day period it would be unlikely to be questioned.
Doreen Clay, public relations manager at Pierce, said no one was available to comment on why the college would be comfortable spending $36,000 each year for “fire services” that exist only in the vivid imagination of the DWP.
An administrator at Taft High School did not return a call for comment. A Westfield spokeswoman, ditto. Probably the same deal as Pierce: Oh, a DWP bill for “fire service.” Guess we should pay it. Are we upset about getting no “fire service” in exchange for thousands and thousands of dollars a year? No need to call back. Everything’s good.
A digression and distinction: When most people think of Los Angeles, they picture the shape of the county as it appears on the map. That’s the big sprawling mass that extends from the Ventura County line north to Kern County and east to San Bernardino and Riverside counties and south to the Big O. (Do they call it that or am I thinking of a Cosmopolitan magazine headline?) But the Los Angeles Fire Department and DWP cover only the city of Los Angeles, occasionally referred to here for clarity as “municipal Los Angeles.” Please don’t think I’m condescending: I’ve lived here most of my life, have been a journalist here most of my career, and I sometimes get confused when listening to TV and radio reports about Los Angeles government without clarification of whether the subject is the county or the city. Adding to the confusion is that the county does provide some services for all cities, including municipal Los Angeles, such as those restaurant grades you see posted; those are issued after inspections (and-or the occasional bribes and kickbacks) by the County Department of Health.
Municipal Los Angeles, or Los Angeles City, is made up of the Valley, Hollywood to Downtown, the Westside to East L.A. and South L.A. to San Pedro. It looks like a Rorschach blot on the larger sprawl, with San Pedro resembling a foot. South L.A. looks like a leg extending up from the foot, and the rest of the sections of the city look like tumoresque blobs growing out of a spine. That’s the best I can do to describe it, and that’s not very good; sorry. But you can analyze me now, doctor. What do you think? The rest of the Los Angeles County sprawl is made up of cities such as Santa Monica, El Segundo, Culver City, Inglewood, Beverly Hills and many others that have their own governments and fire departments, or contract with the county for fire services. This article, or delirious tirade, or philosophical treatise, or whatever it is, refers only to municipal Los Angeles and its private hydrants.
PART 3: JOURNEY TO THE PAST
This scandal came to light in an unusual manner: by absolute accident. Or maybe that’s not unusual. Does history not remember that the corruption of the Oval Office when occupied by Richard M. Nixon was only revealed after a “third-rate burglary” of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Complex?
Don Ochacher and his wife Tamara have lived at Villa Madrid for 14 years, since 2002. He joined the board six years ago, in 2010. Not much is remembered about what happened before his time; other sources are notoriously unreliable. The following is the best possible reconstruction of the history of the fire hydrant in question and the DWP’s related billing.
At some vague point in the mist of Villa history, perhaps as far back as the original construction of the complexes in the early 1970s, there was an agreement that the fire hydrant benefited both Villa Madrid and Villa Granada, the complex next door. Someone somehow decided that even though the hydrant is on Villa Madrid’s property, the bill for the fake fire service (unknown to be fake at that time) would go to Villa Granada and Villa Madrid would reimburse Villa Granada for half.
Alas, no one knows who made that agreement and no trace of the agreement survives in any easily findable form. A lesson in impermanence for us all, in the words of novelist Paul Auster:
“We forget where we were when we began. Later, when we have traveled from this moment as we as far as we have traveled from the beginning, we will forget where we are now. Eventually, we will all go home, and if there are those among us who do not have a home, it is certain, nevertheless, that they will leave this place to go wherever it is they must. If nothing else, life has taught us all this one thing: whoever is here now will not be here later.”
Villa Granada’s property management company, the Chatsworth branch of Fidelity Management Services Inc., thus paid the DWP bill for as long as anyone there could remember. And was reimbursed by Villa Madrid. Until January.
If your sense of humor is anything like mine, this is the part of the story you’ll find the funniest:
Villa Madrid was reimbursing Fidelity Management through automatic payments every two months, pro-rated at $7.08 per day (to avoid dealing with the DWP’s lovable 130-day billing cycle). The payment was transferred from Villa Madrid’s accounts automatically.
Until Fidelity Management’s bank, Community Association Banc, a division of Mutual of Omaha Bank, changed its account-numbering system. For best effect, I quote from the letter, to show the care with which Fidelity Management took to convey this information to Villa Madrid in the clearest and most unambiguous way possible: “The account number for your property has been changed from sixteen (16) digits to five (5) digits. Payments made with the old sixteen (16) digit account numbers are rejected by the bank. Please note and use the following instructions …”
I will not quote the instructions, because, unfortunately, they are not as clear and unambiguous as the change from sixteen (16) digits to five (5) digits.
(That reduction in account numbers did remind me fondly, however, of one of the first things the Socialists did in France when Francois Mitterrand was elected president in 1981. They established, believe it or not, a Department of Bureaucratic Simplification. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but within weeks the national health insurance asked patients for something like seven (7) pieces of information on each reimbursement form, instead of, say, nineteen (19) required on the old form. Vive la revolution! Vive la simplification! And to think some people in the United States are afraid of Socialists, when the first thing they did when they took power in France was to try to make life more simple.)
Using all my brainpower, even as my blood sugar fell from the intense effort at concentration needed to understand the “following instructions,” I was able to translate the four bullet points as the steps we should take to adapt to this simplification under the following scenarios: One (1) If we are using automated payments through our own bank. Two (2) If we are paying via the Mutual of Omaha Bank’s website. Three (3) If we are the last of the dinosaurs still paying by check. (4) Regardless of scenario, we must complete certain requirements regarding our expiration date for automatic payments. (Vive la simplification? Maybe not so much.) Each scenario, plus the expiration date update, required multiple steps on our part, each a project, to adjust our practices to their new system.
Does this terrifying thought occur to you?:
The machines are not adapting to us. WE ARE ADAPTING TO THE MACHINES.
But back to the issue at hand: As indicated by letters from Fidelity Management and Mutual of Omaha Bank, the automatic payment bounced back to Villa Madrid’s account, and Fidelity alerted Villa Madrid that the payment was past due.
That was when Ochacher learned that DWP was charging Villa Granada $2,555 per year for fake fire services. But he did not know they were fake at that time. He asked Conquistador to determine if the amount was accurate for the services provided.
So if Fidelity’s bank had not changed its account numbering from sixteen (16) digits to five (5) digits, the Villas would have kept on unquestioningly paying $2,555 a year to the DWP and would have never seen the bill for “fire services.” Ochacher thus would never have learned that Villa Madrid was paying for said services, and Conquistador would not have found out that they were entirely fictional.
Meanwhile, there remained the problem of how to pay the past due amount to Villa Granada. Because, being good neighbors, even though the charge seemed questionable at the time and was proven entirely bogus later, Villa Madrid did not want to go to war with the Villa next door. (We share a remarkable physical resemblance as well as a property line; it would be like fighting with your twin on the other side your lawn.) So Villa Madrid sent a check to the Chatsworth office.
Unfortunately, at first, Fidelity Management’s Jill Belyeu explained that the check was supposed to have been set to Fidelity’s mothership in Arizona. Fortunately, after some discussion, Belyeu decided that she was flexible enough to forward the check there once she received it in Chatsworth, instead of having to return it to us so that we could send it to Arizona ourselves. “Just this once, though,” she warned. “Oh never again,” she was assured.
Belyeu then authorized Villa Madrid to inquire about the bill with the Department of Water and Power. That too, was fortunate. Because if that authorization were withheld, Fidelity Management would have gone on paying the $2,555 a year forever, Villa Madrid—under a time-honored agreement of which there was neither memory or easily accessible documentation—would have continued paying half and the property owners of municipal Los Angeles, including townhomes such as our Villas, apartment complexes, gated communities, hospitals, commercial centers, and yes, even the school and college districts, would have likely continued paying millions of dollars a year for fake fire services without any awareness of doing so.
Because, as mentioned earlier, Ochacher was the first person in the history of Los Angeles to hold the DWP accountable for the ridiculous dishonest charges.
As this article was nearing completion, Beyleu and Villa Madrid were continuing discussions related to the technicalities of payment questions. Apparently, (yes, this is true, I have it documented) Fidelity Management had received some payments since the great Mutual of Omaha simplification, but had then stopped receiving them. I know, you don’t believe me. It’s too succulent as an irony. And although Beyleu had ceased discussing the fire hydrant issue with yours truly, she noted in an email regarding Villa Madrid’s past due amount that the fire hydrant fee had been handled under this arrangement since 1994. I don’t know if Beyleu knows this firsthand or is making an assumption, so I have stuck with Duff’s more reliable base of at least 2002. Adding eight years would of course increase the total ripoff from $100 million to at least $165 million. At one point in Conquistador’s reporting, the impression emerged that the Fire Department used to bill the property owners directly, but later turned over billing to DWP. Although that could not be verified, it’s not certain that Beyleu’s statement about the billing applies to bills from DWP.
If, if, if. If African-American hero Frank Wills, a 26-year-old security guard, hadn’t noticed a piece of tape on a lock to the door and alerted police to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Complex on that night of June 1972, would Nixon have served until the end of his second term?
PART 4: CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DWP
It took Conquistador only a short time on April 4 to find sufficient evidence that the DWP was billing property owners for fake fire services. However, the investigation was then delayed due to association landscaping issues that Conquistador’s gardening management expert (that would be me, the author and narrator of this document) had to deal with urgently, as well as Conquistador’s work on editing and publishing the memoirs of Edward J. Lopez, World War II war hero fighter pilot, forthcoming in July. After the investigation was resumed, confirmation of the evidence was obtained from the Fire Department last week, and from the Department of Water and Power immediately before publication.
Shortly after receiving authorization by Fidelity Management to inquire about the bill on Villa Granada’s behalf, a call was placed to DWP. But without an I.D. number, which was not on the bill, the operator could not provide assistance. The I.D. number was then provided by Fidelity Management.
As there was no reason to believe this article would result from checking the bill, or that any type of official journalistic investigation was underway, the call was placed not as a journalist, but as a volunteer on behalf of the ratepayers: Villa Madrid and Villa Granada. The call went something like this (reconstructed from memory):
“I am asking about this bill for fire service. I’m assuming that’s for our hydrant?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“The charge seems very high. Is this is a mistake? Does it include some past due amount that we’re not understanding?”
“Hold on while I check. No, that looks about right. That’s the standard amount.”
“What’s the standard amount?”
“What it says on your bill.”
“It says $920.36 for ‘service availability’ for 130 days.”
“Yes, that’s right, about $2,000 per year.” (Determined later to be $2,555, but hey, what’s $555 among friends?)
“And what do you do for that money?” (That is what I wanted to know, really, so I wrote down what she said in response.)
“We make sure that there is water coming there in case of a fire.” (Noted verbatim.)
“Oh great. When’s the last time you did that?” (Please forgive me for that fake naiveté. You know what I was doing. I was setting ’em up so I could knock ’em down. I apologize for doing that. And for the cliché I just used, too.)
“Let me check. Oh I don’t see that we keep records on that.”
“So there’s no date that you have recorded that shows you have done that.”
“No, I don’t see one.”
“But you’re sure you do that, you check the hydrants?”
“I have seen firefighters testing hydrants, but I have never seen anyone from the DWP testing hydrants. Are you sure that you test the hydrants and it’s not the Fire Department?”
“Oh that may be.”
“Oh, OK. So then you would bill us for that service, then pay the Fire Department?”
“So you don’t know?”
“Well, I think.”
I then thought about this exchange and called back because I had neglected to ask the question that Ochacher assigned me: Can we get it reduced? I tried to speak to the same customer service person, but I don’t think I was able to. I’m not entirely sure. In any case, either I did, and then asked for the bill reduction, or I had to ask another customer service person the same questions, with slight variation, got the same answers, and then asked the question I called back to ask.
“Can we reduce this bill somehow? It seems excessive.”
“No, that is the standard rate.”
“Could a supervisor reduce the rate for me?” (Like most of you, no doubt, I have learned much from my years in consumer society and negotiations in the world of telephone customer service.) She then transferred me to a supervisor. I summarized much of my previous two conversations and repeated my request for a reduced rate, saying that I thought the charge was excessive. I wrote down her response.
“We do apologize,” she said.
I must add one thing that I failed to write down during the first conversation. I’m not sure I reported it to the supervisor. I told the representative that I was shocked by the amount of the charge and that I wondered if there was anything we could do about. That was as a prelude to asking for a rate reduction. Her response, I believe, is what threw me off track. She said that I could disconnect the hydrant if I wanted to.
I swear that she said that. I did not write it down because I was so shocked. I told her I did not think that was an acceptable solution because A—it was probably not allowed, since the hydrants were likely installed under construction and development permits and B—would leave the residents and property of the Villas with substandard fire protection, and if property were damaged or people were hurt or killed in a blaze it would be my fault for being a cheapskate. I believe, as a result of my objections, we agreed that it was not the way to go. So with eyes wide, I hung up (can we still use that term, or should we say “pushed the end-call button”?) before I could ask for the rate reduction.
Before publishing this article, Conquistador made a last call to the DWP on behalf of the ratepayer to see if the customer service rep would be more honest. Indeed she was, and her comments were closer to the truth than that of the previous representatives.
“It’s the monthly charge for having volumes of water available,” she said, matching the DWP’s statement. When asked about inspection and repair she said the utility performs them upon request.
She acknowledged that the charges on the bill were high. “It is a large amount of money required for these types of properties. It’s the way that the city has set up the costs.” Yes. For capacity and maintenance, as the DWP revealed in its statement. But not for “fire service.”
PART 5: MEET THE FIREFIGHTERS
There are two fire stations, each within about a mile or two of the hydrant in question. Standing in front of the one that Conquistador visited on April 4 were two firefighters, one who looked to be in his 20s or early 30s, another who looked to be in his 40s or early 50s, and they were speaking with an older fellow. More specifically, he was speaking and they were listening. He was a military veteran, or likely introduced himself as one, and was perhaps reminiscing about his days as a firefighter in the service. After parking the Conquistadormobile (a 2007 Honda Accord that still runs like new, despite almost total submersion by a DWP gusher that erupted directly under it on Sunset Boulevard while Conquistador was enjoying a performance by the Eduardo Show at nightclub El Cid), I waited patiently off to the side for the gentleman to finish his story, but the younger firefighter broke away and asked if he could help me. I thought that I’d do better with the older firefighter, though—you know, deeper institutional memory and knowledge of operations.
Bingo. After the firefighter thanked him for his service (hence my belief that we’re talking about a veteran) and the visitor walked away, we chatted about the Villas’ bill for “fire service.” The older firefighter said that the only fire service that it could possibly cover was hydrant testing. We looked on the map and he saw the Villas and knew where they were and had tested the hydrants there himself.
He then saw the bill for the fire hydrant at the Villas.
“WHAT?!” he shouted. “THAT’S INSANE! THAT’S RIDICULOUS!”
At that moment, I knew there was a story. That was April 4, after about an hour on the phone with DWP customer service reps, and five minutes—including the wait for an old soldier to finish telling his tale—at the fire station. Total time to discover what would turn out to be a theft of at least $100 million: About one hour five minutes.
Does the department get reimbursed?
“Yes,” he said (incorrectly, as it turns out, because he was probably thinking of the $5 per hydrant that DWP pays the department to test them when they’re on city property, not private property, for which Conquistador later confirmed that the department gets zero). “But nothing like THAT!”
“Oh, very little.”
So I identified myself as a journalist and told him I planned to return to chat more after I gathered my thoughts. I went back last week, early June. That’s when our very perceptive firefighter provided further enlightenment. He explained how many minutes it takes to test each hydrant. He explained how many men execute the testing. He told me how they test them and showed me the tools they use. (Guess which ones. Give up? Big wrenches, almost the size of an arm. It’s a decidedly low-tech operation.)
Here’s how it works, in simplest terms. The testing takes place in January. (Makes sense. Lowest fire danger. Least likely to get all-company brush fire calls.) The whole station of firefighters rolls out, but are prepared to halt the testing to respond to emergencies. Each station is staffed differently, so it’s easiest to picture this operation by breaking it down to one engine with four men on it. A driver, a captain who navigates and keeps the records, and two firefighters who do the testing.
They plan their route before leaving the station in order to establish the most efficient means of sweeping through a neighborhood and testing all the hydrants. The engine stops at each fireplug. The two firefighters jump out, pop the caps—which are plastic, so often break, which is why they carry replacements on the testing routes—then place a spout on the hydrant to restrict the flow for water conservation, then wrench the hydrants open and make sure the water is flowing.
If it is, they shut it down and clean off any verdigris on the hydrant nozzles with steel wool or sandpaper. The older hydrants have couplings that might need some attention. If there’s anything the firefighters can’t take care of themselves with elbow grease, the captain notes it and sends a service order to the department’s Global Information System; repair specialists take care of it afterward. If the problem is with a private hydrant, the department writes a notice to the property owner.
(Let’s hope your private property fireplug never needs fixing. Who you gonna call? “I don’t know,” said Duff, the man in charge of L.A.’s fireplugs. “A fire hydrant repair guy?” Remember that the DWP rep said that the utility does repairs and maintenance on request. I guess I’ll take her at her word. So for our $2,555, maybe someone will come out and fix our hydrant once every 10 years? Will there be an extra charge for that? What would you guess? I would guess: Yes, there would be an extra charge. Anybody giving odds? I would put a fiver on it. The same fiver that DWP gives to the Fire Department to test the public hydrants.)
Sometimes, if the next hydrant is visible from the one being tested, the engine will pull up to it and the firefighters will walk over to join them there. As each hydrant is tested, the captain checks it off on his log.
So it’s fair to do the calculation by hour. Instead of three to five minutes each, let’s call it six minutes each. Which allows us to do the easy math of 10 hydrants each hour. So the DWP is charging ratepayers $25,550 an hour (double that if you want to go on the low end of estimated time at three minutes each) for hydrant testing executed by four firefighters. Do you know how much firefighters are paid per hour? I don’t imagine it’s $6,000-plus an hour for six minutes of testing each hydrant, or $12,000-plus an hour at three minutes each. Do you? That’s what it would take to justify DWP’s charge—if the utility were paying it to the Fire Department, which it isn’t.
Maybe I’m not being fair. Gasoline. It’s expensive these days, way more than it was when I was a kid. So don’t forget to put the cost of gas in there along with the $25,000 to $50,000 the DWP demands to allegedly cover the cost of four fighters for one hour’s work. So that leaves some margin to cover the DWP’s expenses necessary to pay for these procedures—if there were any expenses.
Let’s round that lower figure down from $25,550 an hour to $25,000—because, as noted earlier, what’s $550 between friends? Moving on from here, however, the numbers get more complex.
PART 12: THE MATH
It’s not Part 12, is it? It’s really Part 6. Did you catch that? Good. It was a test to see if you’re still awake. Because you’re going to have to pay special attention now.
Don’t trust any numbers cited by Conquistador’s resident mathematician? Yes, that’s me, again, although you’ve figured that out by now. (My readers are very clever people.)
You’d be right to be skeptical.
One of the most vivid memories of my high school days at El Camino Real is my 10th grade algebra final. I had been waiting for the test with my head rested on my arms, which were folded on my desk. When the test got to me I picked my head up, took one look and lay my head down again. That was my last academic experience with mathematics. I blame Mr. Crossman, the algebra teacher. I had been seriously ill at the beginning of the school year and missed at least two weeks of school, then came back, then got sick again and missed a third. Fully recovered, I went to Mr. Crossman’s classroom every day during his open period after school to try to catch up. He pointed me to the chapters in the textbook that I missed and left me on my own. I have tried to let go of my bitterness ever since. I was doing a good job of it until recently.
My friend from junior high and high school, Debbie Cutler-Deras, chatted with me on the Facebook page for El Camino Real High School alumni (before I was so rudely expelled from the group for publishing You! Out! Now!—more on that later). She noted that she was only able to get through Crossman’s class by hiring a tutor: Mr. Crossman’s daughter. Alas, I do not believe I was offered the opportunity to add to the Crossman family’s good fortune by contributing pocket money for his offspring, or if I was, I declined it. I would say it warms my heart that Debbie benefited from his daughter’s instruction, except my heart is a biomechanical pump that operates at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 37.2 Centigrade), so it really doesn’t warm my heart, which is another cliché anyway.
And I’m especially displeased that from the outside, it probably seemed to the world that Debbie and I were not good learners, while perhaps the more logical conclusion would’ve been that Mr. Crossman was not a good teacher. So now I’ll have to work for another 40 years on letting go of my bitterness. (And by the way, Debbie: I was ill! I have an excuse! But you … oh gee, sorry, let me get a grip …)
Why did I tell this story? Check the math. Don’t trust me. As French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy, who just published a book on Judaism, said when questioned about his own faith, or more specifically lack thereof: “Christians believe. Jews study.” So be Jewish about my math. Don’t believe. Study.
Where were we? Oh yes. We were at $25,000 that the DWP charges to test the hydrants. (Because the utility does nothing else to make sure that the water is available for firefighting use, as Inspector Robert Duff pointed out in the first section of this article.) So now what’s our next step? We find out: How many hydrants are there on private property in the city of Los Angeles? Then multiply, wait, divide, there’s something with 10 and $25,000—Carl Wellman, another high school friend, became a CPA, but his Facebook posts now show him luxuriating at his brand new beach house on the Sea of Cortez; Carl, where are you when I need you? Never mind, we’ll worry about the math when we get there, because we’re not there yet.
Duff, whom you know by now as our man in charge of hydrants for the city of Los Angeles, does not know how many hydrants there are on private property. The counts are divided up by station; there are 106 stations. His best guess was 1,500 on the low end and 3,000 on the high end.
For a moment, let’s use both of Duff’s figures. If there are 1,500 fire hydrants in the city of Los Angeles, and DWP bills $2,555 annually (to perform absolutely no “fire service,” don’t forget) that works out to $3.75 million each year. (And remember, that’s as if DWP is coming around and taking $3.75 million from property owners with private hydrants; it’s theft, prima facie.
Now let’s use Duff’s higher number. Hey, I can do that without a calculator: Just double $3.75 million. Uh, let’s use the calculator after all. Oh, $7.5 million. I knew that. I coulda done that in my head. (That’s $7.5 million that the DWP is stealing from property owners with hydrants.)
How long has this been going on?
Duff said he has been in the department’s Hydrant and Access Unit of the Fire Marshall’s Office for 14 years, so it’s been at least that long. He said he’s never heard the question before because he had no idea that property owners were being billed those amounts by DWP.
So $3.75 million times 14 is $52.5 million total theft from DWP.
And $7.5 million times 14 is $105 million. (Yes, I did that one without the calculator. I just doubled $52.5 million.)
“That’s a pretty wide range.”
“I know,” Duff acknowledged and chuckled.
Hey, I understand, it’s a big city—471 square miles. So that’s where we can go next.
Count the number of hydrants in a certain square mileage, then … OK wait a minute, I know how to do this, I’ve done stuff like this before. One step at a time, buddy, one step at a time, you can make it.
“No you can’t,” the ghost of Mr. Crossman whispers in my ear. “Why should I waste my great brain on trying to teach a slug like you? You didn’t learn anything and you never will.”
Carl Wellman, help me!
Station 105: 10 square miles. 27 hydrants on private property.
Station 84: 9.5 square miles. 103 hydrants on private property.
Station 72: 5.5 square miles. 86 hydrants on private property.
Station 93: 9.3 square miles. 28 hydrants on private property.
Those figures, on maps from the western edge of Los Angeles at Valley Circle Boulevard to Reseda Boulevard, may not be exact. There is no main list. (“Those numbers would be very hard to come by,” said department spokesman Brian Humphrey said.” Yeah. Tell me about it, Brian.) The numbers cited above were compiled from going to fire stations and using Conquistador’s pointer finger to touch each private hydrant on the maps, while whispering “one, two, three, four” etc. (Not even Mr. Crossman was able to take away Conquistador’s confidence in my ability to do that.)
Some maps showed them as black squares with white circles inside. Some (looking newer) show them as yellow dots. Conquistador counted the hydrants on the maps for Stations 84 and 72 several times to make sure no hydrant was double-counted or omitted. Some properties may have been developed since the maps were printed, such as the new Westfield Village property at Victory and Topanga Canyon boulevards, and added fire hydrants. Others are in the process of teardown for new development, such as the former Rocketdyne site on Victory at Canoga Avenue, where there were 31 hydrants. The 14 hydrants indicated on Fire Station maps at Pierce College might not be the current number because of construction on the campus, spokeswoman Doreen Clay said. She didn’t know the correct number, so it could be accurate despite her implication otherwise.
(No surprise about the 31 hydrants at Rocketdyne. There were huge tanks of fuel and its volatile components on the site, as well as huge tanks of other hazardous chemicals, that could’ve easily blown a 40-acre hole in the West Valley at any time. You do wonder, though, what good a few fire hydrants would’ve done if a tank of rocket fuel exploded; I imagine it would take most if not all the hydrants with it. But they could’ve come in handy for smaller fires. I can’t see a smaller fire staying small at the Rocketdyne site, though. As I type this, I’m hearing KA-BOOM in my imagination, only the real KA-BOOM would’ve been far louder and earth-shaking than anything my imagination could conjure.)
You’re already ahead of me, right; you jumped forward while I was pondering a massive explosion at Rocketdyne. So you already see what the next step is: We add those square miles and get 34.3. We divide by 471 by 34.3 and we get 13.7. We total the number of hydrants on private property and get 244. We multiply 244 by 13.7 and voila: 3,342. That’s above the high end of Duff’s estimate.
Inexact, I know. The West Valley isn’t very dense, there are miles of residential areas without any hydrants on private property. (That could lead you to believe my back-of-the-envelope math is low, so the DWP again gets the benefit of the doubt.) But this is the best I could do with the time and patience I had available. Is the West Valley representative of the rest of municipal Los Angeles? Are there more hydrants on private property here? Or fewer? While I was trying to do these calculations or figure out the best way to do them, someone at the department, I think it was Duff, said: Watch out, there are parts of San Pedro that are just covered with them. So some areas could skew heavy, some light. I didn’t quite get to a 10 percent sample of about 47 square miles, which is where I was headed before I got bored counting fire hydrants on maps, but I did reach almost 35 square miles, which is a 7.4 percent sample. Better than 5 percent, not as good as 10 percent.
(I did it, Mr. Crossman. You tried to stop me, but you failed. It took everything I had, but I finally beat you. I’ve been waiting to say that for more than 40 years. So you, too, Mr. Crossman, can suck my hydrant.)
And remember, this theft is not just from the ratepayer. It’s from the Fire Department, too. DWP pays the firefighters $5 each year to test 57,000 or so public hydrants. It pays the department nothing to test 3,000 or more private hydrants, even while collecting $2,555 per hydrant. If DWP paid the Fire Department the minimum—which would be absurd, but use the absurd as a baseline, which is a generally good approach to DWP in any and all circumstances—and DWP would pay the firefighters $15,000 per year. Times 14 is $210,000. But that would still leave DWP, with, wait a minute, I can figure this out: $2,550 instead of $2,555. Seems like $5 is a bit low. Maybe $50 would be more fair. If so, DWP would owe the Fire Department 10 times that, right? Or a total of $2.1 million. But maybe, being that the firefighters do all the work, they should get $500 per private hydrant tested, which would still leave the utility with $2,505.
That would be a total of at least $21 million DWP—likely the most hated public agency in Los Angeles—has stolen from the Fire Department—likely the most beloved.
And that’s using Duff’s 14 years. Using Beyleu’s 22 years, we’re up to $33 million. You could feed a lot of hungry Dalmatians with $33 million.
To give the DWP the benefit of rounding (why, you may ask, and I have no answer) I took the high end of Duff’s estimate instead of my own at 3,342 (a reduction of more than 10 percent) and settled at the nice round number of 3,000 and then dropped the total dollar amount even lower from $105 million to $100 million (because, again, what’s $5 million between friends?) That’s $100 million worth of DWP theft over 14 years—more if longer. Hence the number mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Ah, rounding: Remember the 1992 acquittal of the police officers who arrested Rodney King—after Sgt. Stacey Koon prevented a CHP officer from shooting him dead, although that detail has vanished into the mists of history. All media reported at the time, and reference articles still state, that the subsequent riots resulted in 1 billion in property damage. That’s a nice round number, isn’t it? There’s probably a margin of error of at least 5 percent. That would be $50 million, give or take, right? And if you’re giving, I’m taking!
Better yet: Let’s say there was a 10 percent margin of error in that calculation. So that would be $100 million, right? The amount that DWP has stolen from its ratepayers. So now we finally get to the punchline, after the longest setup in the history of jokes:
AND AFTER ALL, WHAT’S $100 MILLION AMONG FRIENDS?
PART NEXT: ONTOLOGY/DEONTOLOGY
What did you just read? And why are you still reading it? I thought nobody reads long articles any more. I thought they just want headlines or bumper stickers, or email blasts, or Twitter posts or whatever the great gurus of new media say people want to read. I don’t know any more. Do you? Was this an investigative scoop? Was it a memoir? Was it the journal of the time I spent volunteering for the Homeowners Association? Why did I quote a paragraph from Paul Auster? In an article about fire hydrants? Have I gone insane? (Don’t answer. Or do. I suppose it makes no difference to me.) Why did I wage my last battle with Mr. Crossman here? Do I really think you wanted to read that? I don’t know. It just came out while I was thinking about how to tell this story:
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has stolen at least $100 million from Los Angeles ratepayers who have hydrants on their property. That’s if the theft has only been going on for 14 years. And I found this out with two phone calls to the DWP and one five-minute visit to my local fire station. I didn’t have to file a state public records request. I didn’t have to do much of anything. It fell into my lap. I guess I could’ve ignored it. No one’s paying me to do this. Why didn’t I just ignore it?
Because I remembered something from the year after Mr. Crossman’s Algebra class. A classmate saw the cover of Albert Camus’ The Stranger in a book store and the funny faces on the cover made her think of me (should I have been concerned?), so she bought it for me and insisted that I read it. (“Did you like it?” I asked. “I didn’t read it, I just saw the cover and thought of you.”) I read it in an afternoon, it was quick but deep, and it made me ask myself some questions, so I got The Plague and read that, too. As I began understanding the philosophical challenges faced by Docteur Rieux and his friend Tarrou, I decided I wanted nothing more than to talk about matters of life and death the way Albert Camus did with the metaphorical story of the quarantine of the Algerian city of Oran. I learned about his life and times and his role as editor of the Resistance newspaper, Combat. (His printer took cyanide when arrested by the Nazis, rather than risk cracking under torture and revealing Albert’s whereabouts. Now that’s commitment, as Richard Pryor once famously said, but that’s another story for another day.) I wanted to follow in Camus’ footsteps: Learn, travel, fight for freedom, make a difference, examine the big picture. Other writers, of course, influenced me later. Among those was Graham Greene, for his own visions and interpretations of moral ambiguities.
When the time came for me to write my first novel, I asked myself: “What would Albert Camus do? What would Graham Greene do?” So I wrote Cemetery Vote, hoping to channel them and do what they would’ve done with the political and social life of Los Angeles toward the turn of the millennium. My friend who edited it said:
“Sounds more like Elmore Leonard.”
“I failed again,” I said.
“Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Better.” Sam Beckett wrote that. See? I fail better already.
But I’m older now, and I do things differently than I did when I wrote Cemetery Vote. When this story dropped into my lap, I didn’t say: “What would Camus do with it, what would Greene do with it?” I said: “I’m gonna let ’er rip. I’m gonna say what I want to say the moment I want to say it. I’m gonna be me.”
Hence the free associations, the quote from Paul Auster, my bitterness at the memory of reaching out to Mr. Crossman for help and getting none. I was a kid, Mr. Crossman, and you knew it. You delighted us every Friday by taking a break from algebra and reading us Winnie the Pooh. You knew we were still kids. And I asked you for help and you didn’t give me any even though it was your fucking job and you were getting paid to it. (No, no, I’m fine, doctor, I’ll calm down, the guys can put the straitjacket back in the closet, no need, see, I fail better already.)
If you’d have asked me what I was doing when I started this I would’ve said: “It’s guerrilla journalism, like You! Out! Now!”
That was a story that also dropped into my lap. I was invited to the Facebook page of El Camino High School alumni—I think by Debbie Cutler-Deras in fact, and by the way Debbie, this Mr. Crossman thing and his daugh … oh never mind, I’ll let it go now, I promise—and after joining a few discussions about the old days, I asked the question: “Who got suspended? For what?” And people gave such great answers that I compiled them, edited them into book form and published it within four days. I thought my alumni and former classmates were going to be impressed. “Hey how’d he do that?”
But no. Not at all. An eruption of irrational hatred occurred; I was threatened with legal action and I was even threatened physically. My old friends stood up for me, which was lovely. I was instantly expelled from the Facebook page (just like being in high school again!) but the attacks continued. My friends made copies of the libelous statements and sent them to me: I was accused of theft, copyright infringement, invasion of privacy. One person accused me of unethical journalism. She claimed she had been a USC journalism professor for 20 years. I checked with the folks in the J-school there. No one had ever heard of her. So this was a woman posing as an expert in order to establish the credentials she felt she needed to substantiate her vilification of me. Try to wrap your brain around that.“I’m not a journalism teacher, I just pretend to be one so I can torment a real journalist.”
When I started writing this, I thought it would be another example of guerrilla journalism, a companion piece to You! Out! Now!, except as a post-modern metajournalistic scoop of investigative reporting instead of a compilation of high school hijinx. But I just looked up guerrilla journalism, and it’s one of those labels that could mean anything you want to do, like the shape of municipal Los Angeles could look like tumors or a seahorse. It could be freelance writing to rabble-rousing advocacy, to “citizen journalism” to—you see where I’m going: Tell me what you think it is and I’ll tell you who you are. So it’s a dumb label and I never should’ve appropriated it or more precisely misappropriated it.
So again, what is this? It’s just me. Doing some creative expression. I’m enjoying myself. Just doing what I like doing. Just having fun.
At our 40th high school reunion last year, Kevin Willis and I were chatting like we used to when we were teens, about all those things that Camus dealt with: all the challenges of life and death. He mentioned that he’d once asked his dad to share the one lesson he’d like to pass on.
“Kevin,” dad said, “the world runs on bullshit.”
But sometimes I get really tired of all the bullshit. I crave some authenticity. And when I saw that I could debunk the insane ripoff that the DWP has been pulling for at least 14 years, I just did it. Maybe I’ll do something like this again. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I did enjoy this. I hope you did, too. If you’ve read this far, it’s a good bet, isn’t it? You would’ve stopped by now if you weren’t enjoying yourself. I think. Please keep reading for another minute to find out about Conquistador Publications.
And Mr. Willis, if the result of this investigation, which started when a bank changed its account-numbering system, is that the DWP has to return one hundred million dollars ($100 million) to its ratepayers, haven’t I done my part? To make the world a better place? Or some bullshit like that? Or maybe it’s not bullshit. Did I just, entirely unintentionally, perform the modern American consumer version of what Albert Camus did during the Nazi Occupation of France? Did I just fight the power? And win?
PART LAST: MEET CONQUISTADOR
We are an international startup based in Los Angeles. We launched earlier this year and have published three books with a fourth on the way. Also forthcoming is the first edition of our literary journal, Conquistador Quarterly; and a magazine of opinion, memoir and journalism, Conquistador Comment. We are publishers of unheard voices, and we’re making the last stand against post-literacy in the digital age.
The first book was You! Out! Now! by yours truly. It was a compilation of answers to a question I posed to alumni on my high school’s Facebook page. The question was “Who got suspended and for what?” The project was banned by Amazon on the basis of a false claim of copyright violation by Burbank teacher Luc Gattuso. Gattuso also made the false claim to other book marketplaces, which restored the title to their shelves after I defended myself. As Amazon did not allow me that privilege, the matter is pending litigation. This commercial ban inspired me to read up on legendary publisher Barney Rosset, whose legal battles in defense of authors such as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence effectively ended censorship in the United States. Co-editor Seann McCollum, a poet, painter and museum mailroom employee in Portland, Ore., and I were inspired to start Conquistador at that point.
The second book was McCollum’s “Magnifying Glass and Other Stories,” a collection of experimental short fiction and memoir. The title story is 10,000 words and it’s about Smurfs. (That may also help answer the question: What is Conquistador? Think of everything else. Conquistador is what everything else isn’t.)
The third book, “Chill and Other Stories” is by Charles George Taylor, who grew up as a Christian in Amish country. When he felt the first stirrings of homosexuality as a teen, he joined the Army in hopes that it would turn him into a strapping hetero; but military service had the opposite effect and he became a flaming queer in uniform during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He then lived the gay life through the age of AIDS and is now a payroll messenger in New York City. The collection includes tales of his military service, his psychotic break after the death of a lover, lyrical reminiscences of his idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania, and his connection to unseen presences. He enjoys baking.
The fourth book, “The Life of a Hell Hawk,” is the memoir of Edward J. Lopez, a World War II fighter pilot who grew up in Los Angeles, spent a summer as a teen cowboy in New Mexico, then flew in two key combat missions that eased the way for Gen. George Patton to cross into Germany. He writes of life and love and sex amid warfare, and the racism he sometimes encountered in the United States in contrast to the respect he found among his fellow fliers in the military. (One of his happiest moments was when his “Hell Hawk” comrades nicknamed him “Lopie.”) Lopez is 91, lives in Arcadia, and still flies!
The revelation that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power charges property owners astronomically inflated amounts for fire hydrant servicing is Conquistador’s first work of investigative journalism. (Or whatever this thing you’re about to finish reading is called.) And may be its last.
The author of the DWP article is also yours truly. I began my career in journalism at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, where among other accomplishments, I interviewed and profiled Patrick Modiano for the paper in 1985, introducing the young French writer to a wider audience in the English-speaking world. Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015. (I was only 30 years ahead of my time. Conquistador is looking for the immortals who are writing now. Rendezvous Stockholm, 2046.) Since then, I’ve worked at newspapers and other publications in the Los Angeles area, including a decade as a managing editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal. During my tenure there the weekly was routinely named the best of its size in the United States by the Association of Area Business Journal Publications and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. I once escaped arrest for trespassing at a skyscraper under construction by fleeing from the LAPD on my bicycle.
Other Conquistador contributors include Whit Frazier (see you in Sweden, Whit; I might look pretty old by then, but there’s more to life than looks), author of “Harlem Mosaic,” a historical fiction centered on the romance of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance; Steve Chawkins, former obituary writer for the Los Angeles Times; and poet Liz Axelrod, whose new collection is “Go Ask Alice.” Frazier lives in Stuttgart; Chawkins in Ventura; Axelrod in New York.
Subscribe to Conquistador through a PayPal email to email@example.com.
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Sponsor and patron opportunities are also available. Please inquire at the same email address. DWP could sponsor Conquistador, but to quote Sir Elton, then again, no.
Conquistador also offers custom editing and publishing services.