2015-10-02 / Community

Board gets answers for public works problems

By Duke Harrington Staff writer

KENNEBUNK — By their own admission, selectmen have some heavy reading to do.

Although a report on the town’s public services department, presented at the Sept. 22 board meeting, weighs in at just 53 pages, it contains a host of weighty propositions that could impact how the department is run for generations to come.

The report, prepared by Michael Pardue of The Tidewater Group, was commissioned over the winter, at about the time the town was fined $3,400 by the Department of Environmental Protection.

That was then

That penalty was assessed following work done by town crews last fall on Great Hill Road to create a shoulder as well as an area to store plowed snow.

After receiving a tip, DEP inspectors faulted the town for disturbing a 400-foot stretch of coastal sand dune separating the road from the adjacent marsh.

Great Hill Road is only 12 feet wide, but the dunes are still a protected natural resource and disturbing them at all, even if they are in the town’s the right-of-way, constituted a violation of both the federal Natural Resources Protection Act and Maine’s erosion and sedimentation control law, DEP officials ruled.

When selectmen discussed the fine at their Jan. 13 meeting, it was clear more complex issues were at play.

Sea Road resident Steve Bowley took Town Manager Barry Tibbetts to task for intimating rank-and-file highway workers were to blame for destruction of the dune.

“There was strict instruction on what was to be done down there and no supervision to make sure it was done that way,” Bowley said. “To insinuate it was the working guys who made this call to do things that way, I don’t think that’s fair to these folks.”

“From my perspective, no one’s being blamed for anything,” replied board Chairman Kevin Donovan. “Mistakes were made across the board and that’s what they were — mistakes.”

However, Donovan did not stop there, driving instead to a deeper issue. He said recent, unspecified “comments on social media” about the sand dune issue were just the tip of the iceberg, as it were.

“I get the perception in this town that there are people who want the public works director out, and it’s beginning to frost me, quite frankly,” Donovan said. “If people have something to say, and they want to say it pointedly, let’s get it out on the table.”

Whatever it was that was irking online commentators, it never did get a public airing. Public works Director Thomas Martin Jr. went on paid medical leave at about that time, citing the need for a knee operation. Martin never returned to work and resigned April 21, after just 14 months on the job.

That delayed Pardue’s report, in part because it was Pardue who was hired by selectmen to fill in for Martin, first during the director’s medical leave, then as interim director until July, when Eric Labelle was hired from the Portland Public Services Department to be the new head of Kennebunk’s road and parks crew.

A cost for Pardue’s review, originally due to have been completed in March, was not immediately available. However, when presenting the report at the selectmen’s Sept. 22 meeting, Pardue said it was enhanced by his ability to see the public works department “from the inside out” during his tenure as interim director.

“What I found when I came in to the department was a lot of working within silos,” Pardue said. “There was a lack of communication. There was a poor foundation of morale. There was a lack of leadership being felt by many. And there was strife among some of the leadership within the department. All of that needed to change.”

Pardue conducted more than 40 interviews as part of his story, and found “80 percent” of Kennebunk’s public works employees citing “lack of trust within the organization.”

“The public is unhappy because we are not managed well,” he quoted one worker saying.

“I’m certainly not pointing fingers,” Pardue said, “but I think there were some lapses on occasion that were identified.”

This is now

Also identified by Pardue in his report are 21 recommendations for improvements to the public services department, some already employed by him, others now being incorporated by Labelle.

The good news, he said, was that a majority of the town’s public works employees have confidence in their peers.

“Most of our guys have a lot of capabilities,” Pardue said.

“What I found was a very prideful group of individuals who went to work every day with the goal and objective to provide this community the finest services possible, sometimes with limited resources and sometimes overcome by Mother Nature. And yet they just clawed their way through every single event to make sure they kept the roads safe.

“The employees said they really wanted to do very good work for the community, they just needed to be led. They were thirsting for that,” Pardue said. “And I can say emphatically that over the past many months and with the hiring of Mr. Labelle, I am sensing there has been a tremendous change in the morale within the employees. There is just a good camaraderie that has developed and I believe that will continue to go forward under his fine leadership.

“Where the communication breakdown was very clear, with two groups not communicating with one another, those lines have since been blurred,” Pardue said. “Those lines are all gone. They’ve been obliterated. They are now functioning very effectively as a team.”

Part of the problem, Pardue said, was that Kennebunk’s public services department had, “no mission, no vision, no values statement, no strategic plan, and no code of conduct.”

People were falling short of something they couldn’t obtain because it didn’t exist,” he said.

On a more practical level, Pardue quickly moved one plow driver into the garage, to work alongside the town’s lone mechanic.

“When I came in as interim director one of the things that were clear on day one was that the volume of work expected of that garage far exceeded the time of one individual,” he said.

Among his 21 recommendations, Pardue calls on the town to maintain the new structure and to hire a replacement on the road crew for the transferred plow driver. Partly, he said, the change should remain in place as a simple safety precaution.

“To have one mechanic there, and often times everyone is gone out plowing or doing their jobs, that person could be injured and we wouldn’t know for hours, potentially,” he said.

Pardue also calls on the town to maintain the “flattened organizational structure” he put in place. Having arrived to find a work foreman getting an extra stipend, Pardue assigned that manager extra tasks, “to make sure he was actually earning the extra money.”

Ultimately, the work foreman job was elevated to be on par with the department’s operations manager, with tasks and supervisory duties divvied to the strengths of each. Pardue recommended maintaining that structure, saying job descriptions now need to be formalized. A salary study comparing the new jobs with those in surrounding towns might also be necessary he said.

In another change, Pardue complimented the town for assigning the administrative assistant for the pubic works director to perform that job for at least 24 hours per week.

As interim director, Pardue said, he often went several days, and sometimes weeks, without ever seeing his assistant.

“She was tasked with huge amounts of duties, including town payroll,” he said. “That was not working well.”

Other recommendations involved the buildings and grounds. Pardue suggested moving the main office of the highway garage to that part of the building facing Sea Road, for better access to the public. That, he said, could be done as part of project to modernize the building.

“The folks and the equipment have outgrown the facility,” he said. “I do believe it is in need of renovation and potential expansion, or at least better utilization of some of the adjoining buildings.

“At any given day or evening there are many hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting outside that facility that are subject to theft and vandalism,” Pardue said. “So far, we’ve been very fortunate.”

Meanwhile, a project already undertaken jointly by Tibbetts and Labelle is to redirect traffic flow at the site.

“It’s not safe,” Pardue said. “With folks using the Treasure Chest and the transfer [station] site, and all of our heavy equipment and public services people moving in and out and crossing, it’s almost as if you have a runway with big planes and small vehicles intersecting all the time. It’s just a matter of time before we have some form of collision there that won’t be pleasant.”

Finally, among his more overt recommendations, Pardue recommended a greater use of technology within the public services department.

Many department computers have “their own systems and programs,” and $10,000 already put aside for the task should be dedicated to networking all of those machines under a common “management software,” Pardue said.

With a good computer network, and an improved web presence, the road crew might better respond to road complaints using a “see it, click it, and fix it plan,” he said. However, Pardue said road crews had to be trained to prioritize response to complaints.

Pardue also recommended greater use of GIS mapping, to log the placement of benches, trash cans, and flower-filled dorys each season, as well as to record the exact placement of culverts, road signs and directional markers.

“We went out recently for bid online stripping, but did not know how many linear feet there were in town,” Pardue said. “To have all of that geographically plotted and to be able to offer that to vendors would take a lot of time and effort of the shoulders of the [public works] director and allow for more competitive bidding.”

Also needed, Pardue said is an “automatic vehicle location system,” to help plot the current location of all road maintenance vehicles in order to dispatch them to trouble spots more efficiently.

Finally, as in the town garage, Pardue found Kennebunk is understaffed in its parks department, which has just one full-time worker. Augmented by two seasonal workers during the summer months, that person is charged with caring for more than 20 identified parks, along with a host of landscaped area, while care of the Waterhouse Center also has been recently added to his plate.

“I find it hard sometimes to keep up with my own lawn as one person, never mind 20-plus parks and ballfields,” Pardue said, recommending that the town double its seasonal parks staff to four.

“We’re not giving that [the parks] as much attention as we should and, in my opinion, as the taxpayers really deserve,” he said. “For relatively short money you can add a lot to that department.”

And then there’s the future

One thing not covered by Pardue during his report to selectmen was the cost for all of his recommendations. That said, the biggest bill of all may be yet to come, arriving as soon as the next budget, if selectmen follow Pardue’s advice to the letter.

“It is terribly frustrating for the folks who work in that department to know the roads are in such poor condition and to know there is very limited funding,” Pardue said. “My hope and their hope is that, as a board, you look at that this year and take that to the taxpayers to spend what we know will be huge dollars to bring our roads back up to speed.”

A report of road conditions is being prepared, Pardue said, but Donovan said it’s unlikely all of the needed work will get budgeted for a single season.

“If there is a hue and cry out there about fixing roads, the [town] manager is going to come forward and let us all know exactly what it’s gong to cost, and it’s going to be astronomical,” he said. “We have some very tough decisions. It’s going to cost an awful lot of money, there’s no two ways about it.

“But if you want to see how roads in York County are, I challenge anybody to take Route 5,” Donovan said. “Just follow it up through Waterboro and Limerick and up into Parsonsfield, and you will find out that most of the complaints in town are really minor compared to when you get out of here.”

As to which roads might get budgeted for repair next year, and which of Pardue’s recommendations, if any, selectmen will act on, that’s a decision for another day.

“We’ve all got to go home and do some reading and digest this,” Selectmen Richard Morin said, as he held the report. “Maybe we can discuss it at another time.”

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