Mayor, city council hire local AC contractor to demolish Needville’s historic water tower, upset residents continue fight for preservation
Many Needville residents who consider the World War II-era water tower near the center of town a historic landmark were shocked when two years ago city officials proposed tearing down the aging structure, which still pumps city water. Soon after, a group of concerned area citizens lobbied successfully for preservation and efforts have been ongoing since then to raise funds for restoration. Preservation supporters hoped to take the water tower offline and have it remain standing as a city landmark. However, Mayor Ernie Stuart recently said preservation efforts had gone on too long after he and the city council voted to pay a local contractor $25,000 to demolish the water tower.
“It’s been over two years and they’ve done nothing. I can’t babysit these people,” Stuart said by phone. “People elected me to do what is right for the city and I don’t have time to worry about the water tower. I need to move on.”
In a narrow 3-2 vote, the Needville City Council voted on Nov. 14 to hire Rex Mechanical, a local air conditioning contractor, to demolish the tower.
According to a 2016 estimate by Dunham Engineering provided by mayor Stuart, repairing the water tower to remain servicing city water would cost $350,000. The cost to restore the structure for use as a landmark was not included in the estimate. However, officials from the Needville Preservation Group, a non-profit formed by area residents who raised over $13,000 for the water tower, spoke at the meeting and said the money they raised combined with $30,000 approved in 2011 by the Needville Economic Development Corporation would be enough to restore the tower and allow it to remain as a city landmark. Group president Lisa Thomas Morphis urged the council to save the tower and provided an estimate from a water tower restoration company totaling approximately $45,000.
Other preservation group members question Mayor Stuart’s plans to demolish the water tower.
The citizens need transparency, communication and the truth,” Sharon Demel said by phone Thursday (Dec. 19). “The contract approved by the council had no scope of work and it’s not clear about the final costs. In the past, we’ve also seen reports that the tower is contaminated by lead and handling these hazardous materials is dangerous. Is the demolition process going to be safe for the people who live near the tower? And, what are they going to do with the water tower once it’s dismantled? We don’t know and we need the mayor to step up and share the facts and be transparent about the plan.”
Councilmember Corey Kelly, who supports demolition, pointed to a 2017 report that detailed problems such as holes in the structure and other damage as a deciding factor. The tower also has not benefited from regular maintenance and repairs.
“Once I was presented with actual information and facts, I had to make the best decision for the city,” Kelly said.
City officials say the demolition could take place as early as Saturday.
However, efforts to save the water tower continue and could delay if not potentially block Mayor Stuart and the city council from tearing down the water tower.
Rick Sinclair, a former Needville City Council member who works as an engineer for a large Houston firm, claims city officials neglected to file needed permits with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to dismantle the tower, which Sinclair says is contaminated with lead. Sinclair says he has filed complaints with the TCEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and intends to file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Texas Municipal League.
“The city should have filed for a permit from the TCEQ to handle hazardous materials to make sure it is safe for the people who live around the tower and the workers who will be involved. The contractor hired by the city council is a nice guy, but I don’t believe he is licensed or accredited to handle this level of lead abatement,” Sinclair said.
“I also question if the contract was a single-source contract and if it was put out for bids,” Sinclair said. “When I was on the city council, we always bid out our contracts to make sure we got the best price and most qualified company to work for us.”
Mayor Stuart and other city officials did not respond to emails seeking information about the approved contract and the details of the demolition.