Stuck in a hole: City hotline botches sinkhole response

In deep: Anthony Mottola and his neighbors have been trying to get the city to fill this 5-foot-deep sink hole for more than a year.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

It was enough to give them a sinking feeling.

After more than a year, a dozen 311 calls, a couple of inspections, and a big runaround, residents of E. 37th Street felt like they were only digging themselves in deeper trying to get the city to fix a five-foot-deep sinkhole opening up under their sidewalk.

The city’s public service hotline kept routing neighbors’ complaints either to the Parks Department — because the hole was in the corner of a street tree planted — or to the Department of Transportation — because it reached under the sidewalk. But both agencies said that the sinkhole wasn’t their problem, and they had no idea which city department would be responsible.

“We just kept getting the runaround,” said Alonna Bondar, who first noticed the hole in front of her home in 2012. “Nobody wants to take responsibility.”

After months of calling 311, Bondar and her neighbors got discouraged, but when someone tripped in the growing hazard, they renewed their efforts.

“When my neighbor fell, we decided to get more aggressive,” she said.

Finally, Bondar reached out to this paper for help, and an investigation revealed that the 311 operators should have referred her complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection, the city agency responsible for underground water mains, which are the typical cause of sinkholes. Shortly after a call from a reporter about the problem, the department dispatched a crew to explore the growing cavern beneath the sidewalk with a long-necked, closed-circuit camera.

“I can’t even believe what’s been done since you got involved,” Bondar said.

Ironically, the city once again shifted responsibility for fixing the problem — to Bondar.

The department found that the sinkhole was caused by a leak in the pipes that run between Bondar’s home and the water main below the street, and homeowners are responsible for maintaining and repairing pipes that tie homes to main lines, according to a department spokesman.

But ultimately, the city will have to take responsibility for the thousands of dollars in repair costs, because Bondar is enrolled in the city’s sewer line protection program — a sort of pipe insurance that costs homeowners about $8 a month added to a home’s water bill.

“It has paid for itself already,” said Bondar, who enrolled in the program about six months ago.

Bondar said she’s pleased her ordeal is close to resolution, but she’s still a bit upset that her all calls to 311 were so useless.

“We really did everything right and got nowhere, until now,” she said.

In fact, the city is still deflecting blame for the hotline fiasco — again, to Bondar.

A spokeswoman for the 311 system said the confusion was all her fault, because Bondar said the sinkhole was in a Parks Department street-tree planter, and was near a sidewalk, which is the Department of Transportation’s purview — and using keywords like “tree” and “sidewalk” cued 311 workers to route the complaint to those agencies, despite the sinkhole being the root of the complaint.

Unfortunately, repeatedly using the keyword “sinkhole” never clued in the 311 staff that the complaint should have gone to the Department of Environmental Protection in the first place, because hotline workers are told that sinkholes only happen in the street.

“A sinkhole is defined as a hole in a roadway, and the way she defined it was that it was on the sidewalk, so that’s the difference,” a 311 spokeswoman said.

But Bondar said that is no excuse for the city’s own public-services help-line to be so unhelpful.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” she said. “A person should be able to call the city and get the help they need.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.

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