A2 Fix It
The city's new complaint system tackles the Arborview Stench.
From the February, 2016 issue
"The smell started five, maybe ten years ago," says Sally Mitani, who's lived on Arborview on the west side since 2000. "It smells from May to October but concentrates in hot, humid months ... on Maple Ridge and Arborview. For years I've been meaning to call the city."
Last August the stench got so bad that Mitani, who writes the Observer's Marketplace Changes column, finally did contact the city--but not by phone or email. She tried A2 Fix It, a new online service where folks can tell the city about stuff that needs fixing.
A2 Fix It is available as a mobile app, but Mitani used the "report a problem" link on A2gov.org. She found an existing thread on the stench, and posted "the smell is very bad today."
She got an automated response that began, "Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. City staff investigated and resolved the problem."
Mitani was flummoxed. "The city said it was fixed, but the city has been saying that for years."
This time, though, something really had happened. In early October Fifth Ward city council rep Chuck Warpehoski posted a message on A2 Fix It from then city administrator Steve Powers:
"The odor is suspected to be from hydrogen sulfide venting out of the manholes along a sewer line owned by Scio Township," Powers wrote. The township had pledged to install odor filters on the manholes within a month and "has been instructed to have long-term improvement in place" by May 1 of this year.
Warpehoski emails: "I posted on A2 Fix It to make sure that the folks who have reported the problem were kept up-to-date on the efforts to solve it."
Have the newly installed filters worked? "Nobody will know until next summer," says Mitani. "But I'm an optimist."
A2 Fix It came online in July 2014. It was "developed out of a desperate need to replace the constituent request system we had," says Robert Kellar, communications specialist for the city's public
works area. "It started breaking down in late 2012, and, when I joined the staff in July 2013, it was down for days at a time." He says he's Fix It's "biggest proponent. I have a dashboard that's up on my computer every day all day. I see almost every request that comes in."
Sitting with Kellar in a City Hall conference room is field operations manager Molly Maciejewski. "My guys are the ones who are fixing the potholes," she explains. "When you enter the problem, it automatically goes into our maintenance management system, Cityworks, that generates the request to the appropriate person to address the problem."About 45 percent of the problems reported to the city now come through A2 Fix It. Kellar says that since it went online, it's taken 7,075 complaints, and closed 6,160 of them.
The most common involve streetlights, potholes, and trees. "In the winter you get more snow issues, the fall you get a lot more streetlights, the summer and spring it's potholes all the time," Kellar says.
Most of the 915 unresolved complaints involve trees and streetlights. There was already a backlog of forestry maintenance requests before A2 Fix It went online, Kellar says, and it's only gotten bigger since. "Council approved more resources [in the city's new forestry plan], but we're still talking years" to get to them all.
He says the city can't do much about broken streetlights, because the vast majority belong to DTE. "All we can do is call in the problem, get the reference number, and post it on the website. We'll keep the issue open until DTE tells us the light is fixed. And this has created quite a problem, because DTE is not really good about following up on their streetlight repairs."
Other problems get resolved more quickly. "Our goal is to try to fix potholes within the next business day. For the most part it's going pretty good, but if we get a whole bunch of pothole requests we try to group them by area, so it might take another day."
Kellar says the system saves the city time and money. "It's basically a buck thirty-five less than if we were doing it by a phone call," he says, because phone and email complaints have to be entered into the Cityworks system by hand.
"The next step is reaching more possible users," says Kellar. "The only way to improve is to get the word out. I could see a day when phone calls and emails would be far less frequent. But we'll never turn off the phones and emails. There're too many complicated issues."
Warpehoski emails that overall the public response to the new system has been positive. "Routine fixes like potholes that need to be filled, sidewalk issues, etc. get fixed quickly. For example, the 'no left turn' sign on Broadway facing Wall Street had been completely covered over by a nearby tree. I posted it to the app, and a few weeks later it was fixed. I've heard reports about people posting potholes in the morning and seeing them patched by the afternoon.
"Where we struggle is to do a good job responding to things that are not routine maintenance. The Arborview sewer odor is a good example. Non-routine issues, especially ones that are the responsibility of other entities, don't work as well with the system. There has been some frustration when staff closes tickets because we've handed them off to other entities"--but the other entities have not solved the problem.
That's why Mitani was misinformed that the stench had been resolved. "Some employees didn't realize they were supposed to leave it open and closed it, and that response [she received] auto-generates," Maciejewski explains.
But there actually has been progress on solving the stench. "We sat down with Scio at the end of September, [and] they came up with their plan," Maciejewski says. "That's why that response came subsequent to that meeting."
"The residents are 100 percent correct," says Scott Martin, head of Scio Township's utilities department. "There's been a historic odor problem, but the smells have been really bad there this summer."
Scio pays the city to dispose of its sewage--and the two systems meet at Arborview and Maple Ridge. "When they become anaerobic, hydrogen sulfide molecules stink," Martin explains. "They are also very corrosive to concrete pipe, and we had to do major repairs on our system. We lined pipe with fabric that runs right down to Ann Arbor"--shipping their problem to the Arborview neighborhood.
Scio now has twenty filters in the neighborhood's manholes and is consulting engineers about a long-term solution to implement this spring. "It is a solvable problem," says Martin. "We just have to make sure we do it right the first time." The price for the fix will be paid by Scio.
Does that mean the summer of 2015 was the last gasp of the Arborview stench? The optimistic Mitani hopes so. "City government works well in Ann Arbor. Compare it to DTE or Comcast!"
[Originally published in February, 2016.]
On January 26, 2016, Valerie Mates wrote:
The timing on this article is perfect -- just this morning I was thinking, "I should get on A2FixIt and report the daily smell of gas at Maple and Scio Church."
I love A2FixIt and its SeeClickFix sibling. I enter a problem, and it magically gets fixed! Once I used SeeClickFix to report a missing street sign in Ypsi -- and they fixed that promptly too.
On February 11, 2016, Phyllis Valentine wrote:
When I first reported this issue in July, the ticket was answered and closed. The answer from the City was that the pipes belonged to Scio Township and were therefore not the City's responsibility. That's not what the article implies happened at first. I was angry enough at this response to not only open the ticket again, but encourage our Council members and Neighborhood Social Media to open tickets and keep them open.
On March 8, 2016, Barb McMullen wrote:
Sadly, the stench is still an issue. I smelled it this morning.. :(
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