In Guilford, a drain on patience

Repeated calls to city about flooded basements went unheeded for months

June 27, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Clarke D. Bowers never expected a utopia when he and his family moved to Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood five years ago. He knew crime might be an issue, the snowplows less than speedy.

But having to wait 13 months for city crews to unclog underground municipal storm drains that repeatedly caused his basement to flood?

He didn't expect that, either.

"I just want them to come clean it out," Bowers, a 42-year- old software engineer who works out of his Tudor-style home on Chancery Square, said Wednesday.

This tale may sound familiar to homeowners everywhere who have had to cajole local government to repair a drain, sidewalk, street or other piece of the public infrastructure.

But Bowers' plight also can be told in the numbers: Three times he called the city about choked drains, starting in May last year. Eight times this spring he had water in his basement, due in part to those drains.

One time the city told him crews closed the book on his complaint because they could not find his house, though his name and phone number were printed on the 311 service request form. Twice, crews went to a different block for reasons not entirely clear. The number of times he saw city workers? Zero.

"The tax assessor seems to find the property," Bowers said. "I don't know why the Department of Public Works can't find it. The water bill makes it here."

Late yesterday afternoon -- after he wrote a letter to Public Works Director George L. Winfield, after the community association president raised the issue with an aide to Mayor Martin O'Malley, after a reporter called the city -- workers did find the source of Bowers' vexation.

And they fixed the drain openings. Or as much as could be done. A crew shoveled out copious amounts of dirt and muck but said a second truck would have to come to unclog the pipes, near where Chancery Square meets Chancery Road.

Robert Murrow, a Public Works Department spokesman, said crews had done some work on drains last year, only they were located nearly a block from the Bowers' residence, near 200 Chancery Road. Murrow said the 311 call center gave that address after Bowers called twice in September; Bowers cannot fathom why that happened because he knows his own address.

"Based on what we had to go on," Murrow said, "we did pretty well."

But Murrow cannot say why crews did not call Bowers after he lodged his first complaint. The 311 form simply gave Chancery Road -- not square -- as the address, but it included Bowers' name and phone number.

Bowers moved to the city five years ago when he and his family decided to try city life.

An elegant semidetached house attracted them, along with the fact that downtown restaurants would be a short drive away. They liked the sound of birds chirping on their leafy street, even with busy 39th Street and Greenmount Avenue fairly close.

But the city drains had been a problem since 1999, and in May last year he called Public Works. "Drains are clogged with leaves and debris," a city worker typed into the computer system. Bowers thought he called Public Works directly but Murrow said the calls are automatically routed to the 311 system for nonemergency services.

When Bowers heard nothing, he called again, in September. He was told workers had not been able to find his property. Bowers called once more in September, but no one came. Murrow said six storm "inlets" were cleared -- around 200 Chancery Road, near Greenway and a full block from the Bowers' home. The mysteriously inaccurate address came from 311, Murrow said.

Meanwhile, beneath the grates near Bowers' house there lurked a thick goop resembling compost piles. Bowers dug it out some but could not even punch his fist through the clotted dirt and tree roots.

During this spring's rains, his basement flooded eight times, once shorting out appliances. Bowers said he did not call a fourth time because he had given up.

By Sunday, though, he was fed up and wrote to Winfield, enclosing every way to find his house, including a map. He listed five tools workers would need. Only yesterday did he get satisfaction.

But lest Bowers feel singled out, there is his neighbor Martha Socolar. She called the city June 13 after torrential rains flooded her basement. When no one came, she called back and was told the city's computer does not recognize Chancery Square, a city street laid 90 years ago, perhaps solving part of the Bowers mystery.

The operator who took Socolar's second call said it was assumed she had meant Chancery Court, which does exist -- in Baltimore County. Her case was closed, just as Bowers' first complaint had been.

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