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HITTING THE BOTTLESOME CITY OFFICIALS ARE TOO FUSSY TO DRINK FROM THE TAP

Since July 1989, the City of Phoenix has spent about $35,000 on bottled water for its employees. If our tap water is safe to drink--and there's no evidence that it isn't--how do city workers rate so much of the fancy stuff?

That's approximately the question Thelda Williams asked at a recent Phoenix City Council meeting. Williams, a councilmember representing District 2, saw a line item in the city budget for bottled water and immediately suspected waste. Frankly, so did we. $35,000? That's something like $17,000 a year, right? It seemed like an awful lot. The City of Phoenix, while telling its cranky, taxpaying citizens to relax and have a drink of tap water, buys processed water so its employees don't have to? New Times decided the city was all wet and went fishing. Discovery One: City workers are gurgling taxpayer-supported bottled water all over the Valley. Tempe's annual bottled-water bill comes to about $4,700. Mesa spends about $3,500. Contributors to Scottsdale's operating budget pitch in a mere $2,700 a year--just so the lips of some city employees need never touch the stuff that comes from faucets.

Discovery Two: Phoenix supplies bottles of upscale agua to places like the downtown traffic court, the plush parks-department administration building on Central Avenue, the lair of the city's tough-as-nails prosecuting attorneys, a couple of fire houses--even a waste-water treatment plant. Steaming, we reached for the telephone. Unfortunately, our minds were soon put to rest. Bill Bengert, a deputy finance director for the city, offered assurances that Phoenix's whopping bottled-water bill is almost totally justifiable. To ensure that widespread unauthorized guzzling of designer water does not occur, Bengert said, a lengthy procedure of written niggling follows any departmental request for bottles. He sent along three examples of this administrative exchange. It's not pretty. Digging up the justification forms for all 35 departments that use bottled water would be a long and difficult paper chase, Bengert said. Then he implicitly suggested, in a nice way, that we could call them and ask for ourselves. He added that there was no need to call places like the fire department's Hazardous Materials Office, the police department's downtown headquarters or a couple of west-side public works offices. These locations, Bengert explained, use the purified water in their labs. So enlightened, we reached for the telephone again. The fire stations at 1531 East Missouri and 2040 West Camelback get bottled water. According to Tom Sawyer, an assistant chief who puts out fires in the department's support-services division, those station houses have bad plumbing that eventually will be replaced. Meanwhile, "the water either looks bad, tastes bad, both or all three," said Sawyer, and needs to be supplemented by the bottled kind. A water/waste-water customer-service office at 35th Avenue and Glendale gets bottled water. Speaking for the keepers of the city's waterworks, spokesman Charlie White explained that the small branch office, located in a strip mall, has only one little bathroom for the whole crew and no drinking fountain whatsoever. "If some customer comes in and wants a drink, we can't say, `We're only the water department. We don't have any water,'" said White. The city's Street Transportation Department parking-meter war room, located in a leased warehouse on East Jefferson, gets bottled water. "It's not for lab animals, it's for us," says Alex Traslavina, supervisor of the bubbler-free building. The city's prosecutors' office, located in the old Phoenix Union High School near Fifth Street and Van Buren--the kind of building that should be overbuilt with drinking fountains--gets bottled water. Barb Hernandez, an administrative assistant for the department, said that without bottled water the whole staff (of dozens) would have to share but one water fountain.

The city's Parks, Recreations and Library executives get bottled water. In fact, the parks department's Central Avenue command bunker takes delivery of 360 bottles of 42-cents-a-gallon-not-counting-cooler-rental-fees water every year, according to Chris Curcio, a management services administrator. The parks honchos, Curcio explained patiently, toil in a leased building, a two-story unit fitted with just one drinking fountain. A weak fountain at that. It puts out "a little spurt of water," said Curcio. "It's not functional at a normal level . . . . The drinking fountain, such as it was, was not going to meet the needs of the employees or public that use the building."

Finally, the city council office for District 5 gets bottled water. Or at least it used to. According to Mark Hughes, commander of Phoenix's public information army, former councilmember Howard Adams had a medical prescription for the water bottles once brought to his office. When Adams left the council in late 1990, the service was ceased, Hughes said. Purchasing-department staffers in Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale had reasons for buying bottled water that were much the same as the Phoenix reasons. A man named Adrian C. Fleck is listed in the city's paperwork as Hinckley and Schmitt's area manager in charge of the city's account. Fleck had Rich DeAlba, a zone manager, return a telephone call last week to say the company would neither confirm nor deny that the City of Phoenix is the water company's single largest local customer. Instead, DeAlba suggested New Times place a call to "Mr. Schmitt's office" in Chicago. George Schmitt, Hinckley and Schmitt's chief executive officer, reached for the telephone to say that he couldn't say for sure. "It certainly is one of the larger ones we have there," he said. Schmitt pointed out, though, that the city's bid procedure drops its price-per-bottle down to about $2--from the $5 range. "There's no big profit in it for us."

"It puts out a little spurt of water. It's not functional at a normal level."

"If some customer comes in and wants a drink, we can't say, `We're only the water department. We don't have any water.'

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Dave Walker