Water, Water, Everywhere

How many plumbers does it take to unclog a toilet? In Irving Spiegel's case, about ten. One to solve the problem, the rest to charge him thousands of dollars.

Crack all the jokes you want about household engineering and inefficient repairmen, but Irving Spiegel isn't laughing. For three years, he and his employees at Mirror Poster Printing in downtown Miami waded through shoelace-deep effluent while a procession of bumbling Metro-Dade and private plumbers continually unclogged their commodes. The problem was traced to a municipal sewer project outside the building. Now, with the problem solved and his feet almost dry, Spiegel is waiting for someone to admit fault and pay him back. Namely, the City of Miami.

Way back in the spring of 1988, Spiegel says, the toilets at his screen-printing company began to cough their contents all over the floor. The first crew of handymen arrived soon after, armed with snakes, pipes, and shiny new porcelain. They dug up the floor in the ladies' room of the warehouse, replaced a toilet and some pipes, handed Spiegel a $164 invoice, and called it a day. When the problem recurred, the same plumbers returned several weeks later, rammed a snake 40 feet through the sewage pipes, cleared the blockage - and slipped Spiegel another bill, this one for $162.

"It was okay for a couple of days and then it backed up again," says Spiegel, a gnomelike man with a red face and goatee, who has been in business at the corner of NW Tenth Street and First Avenue for about 30 years. "It was happening about two to three times a week. And there was no way we could get rid of the water." Not only was the flooding inconvenient, it was also dangerous; the water backed up into the company's stencil-burning room, which was filled with electric equipment. "I was tempted to shut the whole place down," Spiegel grumbles.

He didn't, though. Instead he called in more plumbers. They, too, tramped through the building, plungers in hand, assuring Spiegel the solution to The Problem was at hand. During the next fifteen months, two more teams made about a dozen expeditions into Spiegel's sewage system in search of The Problem. Metro-Dade workers even dug up Tenth Street, Spiegel says, in search of a pipeline running from the company toilets to the city's sewer main.

But despite nearly $1900 worth of plumbing work, the condition seemed to get worse, and the toilets began backing up at least once per day. "It got to the point where everyone had to use this bathroom in my office," recalls Spiegel, clearly shaken at the recollection.

This past April an alert plumber hired by Spiegel found a pipeline running from the warehouse bathrooms out to Tenth Street. County plumbers returned, and after tracing the line halfway across Tenth Street were surprised to discover that the pipe ended there - it wasn't connected to the city main. In 1988, contractors installing sewer lines for a 35-story highrise across the street had failed to reconnect the screen-printing company's sewage pipeline. For three years, instead of flowing into the sewer main, waste from Spiegel's toilet had been oozing into the ground beneath Tenth Street.

"What they were saying down there at the city was that the file for that property was lost," recalls plumber-savior Richard Rosher with a bemused chuckle. Undeterred, Rosher had scrounged through the city archives, where he found drawings that dated back to 1934 and clearly showed a sewage pipe running out of the Tenth Street side of the building. "[Miami and Metro-Dade] had been claiming there wasn't one on Tenth Street. They were really just horsing the guy around. I didn't get paid for some of the time I spent, but I guess it became a challenge," says Rosher. "And a little legwork paid off."

With the pipes reconnected and the toilets working, Spiegel is still looking for reimbursement for the $7598 he shelled out for three years worth of repairs, not to mention $3685 he paid the city for sewage service during that time. Spiegel wrote a letter to Luis Prieto-Portar, director of the city's public works department, demanding repayment. But city officials put the blame on the construction company that laid the sewer in 1988, explaining in a letter to Spiegel's attorney that "the City of Miami never performed any work on this project." The construction company, in turn, denied negligence, claiming that the city provided incomplete and misleading sewer plans.

City public-works and risk-management officials refuse to comment about the problem, for fear the malodorous matter might ultimately wind up in court. All inquiries to the construction company, Man-Con Inc. of Deerfield Beach, were referred to its president, Guy Mancini, who didn't return numerous phone calls last week.

Meanwhile, Spiegel is left with few alternatives other than to sue, an option he fears will cost him more than it will benefit him. "I've been in business in Miami for 40 years, I've paid my taxes, I've never defaulted on anything," he says, reciting the familiar refrain of the Rime of the Wronged Consumer. "All I want is my money back. I didn't ask them for anything else. They couldn't pay me for the aggravation.

 
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