Vital to all, but getting no respect

By Nick Grabbe

What branch of Amherst government touches the lives of every resident, every day, and is housed in a deteriorating building – but gets less public support than the Jones Library and the elementary schools?

It’s Public Works, which keeps our water safe and plentiful, repairs our roads and sidewalks, mows the grass in our parks and athletic fields, and much more.

The old trolley maintenance barn off South Pleasant Street, where 45 Public Works employees work, would probably be condemned if it were a private building. Its physical problems are worse than the Jones Library or Wildwood or Fort River School, but they get less attention than these frequently visited buildings. The public seldom enters the Public Works building.

Instead of receiving support for a new building, Public Works is the target for a lot of citizen complaints. Here are some:

“These potholes! Driving in Amherst is like driving in a Third World country!”

“The plow didn’t push the snow back far enough!” or “The plow pushed the snow back too far!”

“Our teams are at risk of injury because you’re not mowing the grass often enough!”

“Why can’t you reopen the Take It or Leave It area at the transfer station?”

“You can’t put a new Public Works building near low-income people’s houses!”

(Responses to these complaints are below.)

Public Works also handles stormwater drainage, tree-trimming and removal, streetlights and traffic signals. It’s in charge of sewers, cemeteries, and even putting up those banners downtown over South Pleasant Street. That’s all a lot to ask of public employees working out of a substandard building.

The Public Works headquarters is more than a century old. The roof leaks, there are cracks in the brick masonry, there’s minimal insulation, and many of the windows have only one pane of glass. The building doesn’t meet code standards for safety and electricity.

Some employees who service the department’s 50 vehicles in the maintenance bays, which have inadequate ventilation, have reported elevated levels of iron in their blood, said Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. And there isn’t adequate coverage for all the vehicles, leaving them exposed to the elements, shortening their life spans and requiring premature (and expensive) replacement. For photos showing some of these problems, go to https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/49521/1Pager-DPW-12-2-19?bidId=

Amherst officials have known for years that we need a new Public Works building. And now they have extra motivation, because its current site is the preferred location for a new fire station. “It’s a top priority,” Mooring said. But there have been two obstacles: funding and siting.

The original cost estimate for a new Public Works building was $38 million, but unlike the Jones Library renovation/expansion and a new elementary school, there will be no state money to help. All of it must be borrowed and paid back over time. (One sign of the lack of popular support for Public Works is that, unlike the school, no one is considering putting a new building to a vote.)

The projected cost has been reduced to $20 million, requiring a phasing-in of the new building. “We have a $38 million project and we’ve been told we have to put it into a $20 million box,” Mooring said.

The second obstacle is finding an appropriate site for a new building. Amherst College offered to donate a centrally located site, which would have saved a lot of money in land acquisition costs. But some neighbors objected to having trucks coming in and out close to their houses, so the Town Council abandoned that plan.

Officials then received four proposals from landowners who were willing to sell the Town a site, but each one had problems such as location, zoning and access, and all have been rejected. There’s a town-owned site off Pulpit Hill Road that is a Plan B, but it’s far away from South Amherst and has access problems, Mooring said.

“Locating a Public Works facility is challenging because of the needs of the facility – both size and location, zoning requirements, and the sensitivity to our many neighborhoods,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Amherst has been spending more money on road repair each year, but now those gains are offset by higher prices for asphalt, fuel and labor, Mooring said. Some extra money could come from the federal infrastructure bill. Roads that get the most traffic typically get the highest priority, but Mooring hopes to repair more neighborhood roads this next year.

The snowplow complaints frequently come from people who are new to town, and relate to access to mailboxes and plantings near the road, he said.

The record amount of rain that fell in July caused the grass to grow more quickly on soccer and Ultimate fields. So Mooring asked the parks crews to increase the frequency of mowing.

While the book shed at the transfer station, closed during the pandemic, has reopened, the Take It or Leave It area is not coming back, Mooring said. Too many people have been abandoning electronics and dirty kitchen appliances that have to be thrown out at a cost to the town, he said. (The solid waste fund, unlike the water and sewer funds, ran a surplus during the pandemic because so many people were throwing things out.)

At least Mooring isn’t hearing many complaints about a recent increase in water rates. Although the reservoirs and wells that supply water are now resupplied, there’s always the threat of a future drought. In the fall of 1980, the University of Massachusetts sent all its students home because the town couldn’t provide enough water. To remind employees, a shirt is displayed at the Public Works building reading “I survived the great Amherst water shortage.”

To a certain extent, complaints about Public Works come with the territory. My complaint is about the building we ask employees to work in.

7 thoughts on “Vital to all, but getting no respect”

  1. I appreciate the sunlight being cast on the conditions at the DPW in town, but this article unhappily may contribute to what I anticipate will be a fundamental seductive tenet of oncoming cramped disinformation in town: the desire to set up a circular firing squad of capital projects in Amherst, with the notion that alleged fiscal prudence dictates that at least one undertaking must be shot down. We can afford these 4 capital projects. It’s NOT pie-in-the-sky extravagance to say that. We have the reserves. We have a low debt load relative to other Massachusetts municipalities. We have approximately $14 million in state money that we paid into on our taxes on offer for the Jones. We will not need an override for the Library Plan, which was pared down in size considerably earlier on from the ideal dimensions that the actual demands of our programs dictated. Residents of means are ready to make additional private charitable contributions to the Jones in the millions of dollars. Gilford’s plaintive complaint above is matched by previous sacrifices in the future vision for the Jones. The DPW has not been singled out. The Jones in its current physical condition is also an embarrassment, relative to other towns’ libraries. We can’t always get what we want, but, if we try sometimes, be reasonably bold, and accept the state income tax and sales tax revenues on offer at various venues, we will get what we need.

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  2. Appreciate the reporting and your historical context, Nick. Very glad that this important topic is surfacing for public discussion. Public works services are truly essential elements of a town’s compact with its citizens, and the citizens must decide whether to adequately resource the town to do its best job.

    Regardless whether the magic number is $20m, $38m or somewhere in between, locals have a stark, ugly object lesson in deferred maintenance staring us in the face, and it’s Amherst’s own DPW.

    Would you please say more about the timing – and the town’s process for reaching a decision – that will provide parameters for this critical conversation to be resolved? Thank you.

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  3. The condition of the Public Works Department facility pretty much mirrors the condition of much of Amherst’s public infrastructure. When Amherst decides to build or renovate, there is little attention paid to planning for ongoing maintenance and upkeep. Nobody gets thanked publicly for providing dollars for maintenance. Typically yearly budgets that pertain to upkeep and maintenance are underfunded or trimmed completely. I suspect that it has something to do with the extremely high operational budget for schools that the town is saddled with. It has a knock-on effect that impacts the balance of other departmental yearly budget demands. The irony here is that school infrastructure is in about the same shape as the DPW facility. I walk by Wildwood, the middle, and high schools on a daily basis and their buildings and surrounding landscapes are shamefully neglected and crumbling.

    The DPW probably does deserve a new facility, but why was the current facility allowed to deteriorate to its current condition? Why was it not upgraded over the years?

    If a new facility is built the town should hire a good and competent architectural firm. Such a firm could design a new facility within budget that is constructed of quality materials that will last for years with minimal maintenance. The town does not have a successful history when is comes to hiring good architects. Those who designed Wildwood, Fort River, the Middle School, and parts of the high school were mediocre at best and the designs of those buildings reflect this. They are uninspiring and soulless warehouses of learning. They were poor designs right out of the gate and have not improved with age. Add poor upkeep and maintenance to the mix and you have a perfect storm. There is high probability that the town will repeat its past mistakes and hire mediocrity.

    The town is about to repeat this same process with the North Common project. Instead of hiring a top tier landscape architect to design the centerpiece of the town, the planning department bundled the design of the common with the design of the athletic fields at the high school. Why? To save money? The resulting design for the North Common was acceptable but it did not rise to the level of special. In the end it was decided to have DPW modify the design. The result will most surely be mediocre or less than mediocre. DPW personnel are not landscape architects! Just take a look at the brick lined cross walks that DPW designed and installed all over town years ago. They are all being replaced. Northampton celebrates the unique and very successful Pulaski Park, while Amherst wallows in mediocrity. To make matters worse, if history teaches us anything, whatever is built will be poorly maintained.

    The sad reality is that those in Town government either cannot see the problem or are distracted by the desire to save the world rather than tackle the less glamorous task of saving the built environment of our own town.

    Nick, thanks for a thought provoking post.

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    1. Mr. Hanke has seized on our Achille’s heel in town government over the years. The mundane, routine, but careful, meticulous business of running and maintaining a town just doesn’t float our boat. For some time now, our elected officials get their thrills from being in the vanguard, and performing on the national, or even world stage. Especially because we rely so heavily on essentially volunteer leadership, the extreme vigilance required to get municipal governance right is a zero-sum game. Some of the really boring aspects of it, like the proper care and housing of a DPW, will inevitably get compromised, if we’re chasing other American communities to have the latest shiny new program.

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      1. Well said Richard. Unfortunately we are living with decades of poor management. Town meeting was certainly not interested in the care and upkeep of our town, and town council has continued this practice. I guess that if you live with something in a decrepit state long enough you no longer see it, or elect not to see it. If one were to focus on the high school alone there are millions and millions of dollars of deferred maintenance on both the building and its surrounding landscape of athletic fields and parking lots.

        A couple of years ago there was a large lacrosse tournament taking place at the high school. Visitors from New York and New Jersey elected to park on many of the grass surfaces surrounding the building. I think that one of the main reasons for this was that they could see that the property was in a derelict condition and uncared for, so they had license to park on the grass in front of the building. Speaking as someone who has visited (my son was on the soccer team) many of the high schools in the Pioneer Valley and central Massachusetts, I would estimate that Amherst falls within the bottom 10% in terms of the age of its buildings and poor condition of its built environment. Just check out West Springfield or Longmeadow if you want to see communities that care about their high schools.

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  4. I think it’s disgraceful that our public works department is housed in a dilapidated building. We can and should do better. I have also hit a brick wall in my requests to the DPW to help me with a problem. So for me, two thoughts exist at once: We should respect the DPW enough to house it in a better place, and the DPW should respect me enough to not ignore my legitimate concern, and to try to help. It’s been hard for me to realize how much our DPW does not care about even responding to me, let alone trying to help me. Reading this post, I wonder if the DPW is worn down from getting so many citizen complaints, and so has opted to ignore them. If so, that is understandable but unfortunate, as sometimes citizens have legitimate concerns that deserve careful thought and real solutions.

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  5. Thanks for this column, Nick. The Public Works building REALLY needs to be replaced, but it doesn’t catch anybody’s attention because the public never goes into it as they do the library or the schools. The building may have a great history, but it doesn’t serve the needs of a vital town department.

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