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UPDATED: Grate Scott! Local man says he can’t get rid of old grates due to City of Tacoma bureaucracy

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Sep. 2, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
September 2, 2011 9:05 pm

UPDATE: 6:02 p.m.
Mark Fernald and a city spokesman confirmed today that the city has accepted Fernald’s storm drain grates.

“It ended well and they say they’re going to reuse them,” Fernald said.

Shortly after speaking with The News Tribune today, Fernald said he dropped by the city’s sewer utilities’ department, which took the grates off his hands. Utilities workers even helped unload them from his truck, Fernald said.

“They were really nice,” he said. “When they were helping me unload them, one of the guys said to me, `I heard you really got the runaround.’”

“I was really shocked,” Fernald added. “They’d totally changed their attitude.”

“I figured you had either called or posted something. Your post changed the whole scenario. If you didn’t post that, I don’t think they would’ve taken them. And I really don’t think they wanted them.”

City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said in voice messages left today the city accepted the grates from Fernald before the TNT’s blog post. He added the city could not give Fernald an authorization letter to sell the grates as scrap “because we don’t know where he got them from.”

Fernald said over the past several days, he had repeatedly called the city’s police, streets maintenance department and others, and showed up in person to the street maintenance department in his pursuit of trying to get rid of the grates.

In his messages today, McNair-Huff said city officials would like to know exactly what departments or city workers Fernald spoke with to find out if, in fact, he did get the run-around, why that happened.

Original post:

All Mark Fernald wanted to do was clean up his yard.

But what he thought would be a short trip to the scrap-yard to get rid of some old storm drain grates instead has turned into what he describes as a three-day ordeal mired in city bureaucracy.

“It makes me laugh, it’s so frustrating,” said Fernald, 55, an out-of-work carpenter who lives in Gig Harbor. “I’ve been to about five city departments and talked to maybe 20 people, and there’s not one person who can make a decision.”

Fernald’s story really began about nine years ago, when he worked for Gary Merlino Construction on a public works contract to install Sound Transit’s LINK streetcar system downtown.

While laying down the rail line for that job, contractors had to yank out city storm drains, light posts and other structures, Fernald said. They stored the items in a city lot being temporarily used as a storage yard, he said.

Then, after the streetcar work was complete, the city contacted Merlino and told the contractor to get rid of the stored items.

“They told us `Come clean up your garbage or you won’t get paid,” Fernald recounted.

So, Fernald picked up the junk in the lot — including five heavy-duty city storm drain grates. But when he went to the scrap yard that night to try to sell the grates, he found the business already was closed. He took the grates home to Gig Harbor, storing them on a junk lot he keeps near his home.

There the grates have remained, largely forgotten, for the past nine years, he said. Until about two weeks ago, when the recently laid-off carpenter decided to clean up his yard.

This week, Fernald took the grates to Simon Metals, a scrap yard on the Tideflats. But the scrap yard wouldn’t take them.

“I guess a lot of people have been stealing these things and trying to sell them for scrap,” Fernald said. “So Simon & Simon won’t take them without a letter from the city.”

In fact, as we wrote last week, the city issued a press release describing “a rash of thefts of storm drain grates” that has left holes in city streets, posing hazards to bicyclists and drivers.

“Each grate costs about $160 to replace, so the cost is a problem,” the city’s press release added, “but right now, the city is more concerned with safety.”

Thinking it wouldn’t be much trouble obtaining a note from the city, Fernald first called the police department.

“They said no, they couldn’t do anything,” he said.

So, he went to the LINK streetcar office downtown. “And they said no, too.”

Fernald next turned to the city’s streets and grounds division.

“I spent two days there, talking to different people,” he said. “One guy would say, `I can’t help you, call this guy.’ And the next guy would tell me the same thing. This happened again and again.”

Instead of getting an authorization letter, Fernald said he also simply offered to give the city its grates back.

“They’re an older style than the grates the city uses now, but they’re perfectly good.”

Still, he’s had no luck.

“If these drains are getting stolen, the city must have a use for them,” he said. “But I keep hearing, `I’m not authorized to take the grates’ and `I’m not authorized to write you a letter.’ Nobody has any authority. It’s just this huge hierarchy of middle managers who can’t do anything.”

(I’ve left a message today for city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff seeking comment. I will update this post when I hear back from him.)

Fernald dropped by The News Tribune’s office this morning to tell his story. He had yet another meeting scheduled with someone at the city’s street maintenance department today. He’s not holding his breath, he said.

“This is getting kind of funny,” Fernald said. “This is the third day I’ve been in Tacoma with these grates. All I want to do is get them out of the back of my truck.”

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