HOWARD CITY — A report about a water leak turned into a litany of complaints about the Department of Public Works at Monday’s Howard City Village Council meeting.
The council received a written report from DPW Director Mike VanWagner — who was not in attendance at the meeting — about a water leak the DPW has been investigating since last spring.
The leak was difficult to find, in part because the water never came above ground but flowed directly into the Tamarack Creek. The DPW was finally able to find the source of the leak at a location on Spruce Street.
Village Manager-President Randy Heckman said the leak has cost the village about $25,000 to date. VanWagner recommended the village hire Powell’s Excavating & Septic in Howard City to fix the leak at an estimated cost of $5,000. Council members were reluctant to vote on the recommendation, wondering aloud whether other bids had been sought or whether the DPW could fix the leak on their own.
Discussion then turned into a lengthy list of complaints from the council and the audience about the DPW, ranging from failure to pick up brush and leaves to DPW employees sitting around and doing nothing.
“I’d like to know where their time is spent because it’s getting out of hand,” Councilwoman Eleanor Marek said. “I’m getting tired of getting yelled at. I see them sitting behind the library with two people doing nothing.”
“If they could fit four (into the truck), they would fit four,” Councilman Jeff Rosenberger added.
“I was so mad the other day, I said fire them all,” Marek said. “I didn’t care at that point. I was serious.”
Heckman said when he ran for village president, one of his main goals was to reform the DPW.
“I’ve met with those guys on numerous occasions, trying to guide them, drive them, trying to get them to try things that have worked for me, but I can’t get that construed to them,” he said. “Why, I don’t know.
“I hear a lot of negative things, from you guys, from the community. It’s frustrating to me because I want change over there for the better. I shouldn’t have to go babysit. It’s not difficult. They have leaves, brush and snowplowing to make people happy.”
The meeting ended with Rosenberger asking Heckman to “tighten the reins” on the DPW and the council agreeing.
“If the guy who is leading doesn’t lead by example, you’re not going to get stuff accomplished,” Heckman said. “I do 100 times more than those guys do every day. It’s not rocket science, it’s easy stuff.”
VanWagner told The Daily News on Tuesday that he and Heckman met and had a civil conversation that morning. However, VanWagner, who has been the DPW director for 22 years, was not impressed with the council’s accusations.
“I find it odd that they pick a night when I’m not there when it’s much easier to ask me,” he said. “I have had zero complaints in to my office, which is where they should be coming.”
VanWagner said there are many DPW job duties that go unseen by the council and the public in general. He said the DPW has been watching over the irrigation pump at the treatment plant to make sure they get close to perimeters of their state discharge permit.
“I’ve already informed Randy that we will be violating our perimeters and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “Our state DEQ permit says we’re allowed to discharge a certain amount of ammonia and phosphorus. It’s going to be a violation, but we’re trying to limit the severity of the violation.”
VanWagner said the DPW also stays busy with various tasks including assembling and installing new village signs, assisting engineers with the village’s new stormwater, asset management and wastewater (SAW) grant and working on a project to put a bicycle lane on the north side of Shaw Street. VanWagner said he also has to stay on top of office duties, including responding to emails and filling out paperwork.
“It’s just all stuff that people don’t understand,” VanWagner said.
Regarding the complaint about two people riding together in a truck, VanWagner said most DPW jobs require at least two people.
He added that he was previously accused by a resident of saying things he never said, and there were no witnesses to back up either side of the story. He doesn’t want to deal with that situation again, and so he always has an employee out on jobs with him.
“I don’t believe that this current council would back me if it were my word against a resident,” he said. “I don’t believe they would stand behind me. Consequently, I take somebody with me so it’s not my word against theirs.”
As for the coffee breaks? VanWagner said if people see DPW workers standing around drinking coffee, they are either talking about their job assignments or taking a later than usual coffee break due to a previous job taking longer than expected.
“If there’s such an issue, how did I make it so long?” VanWagner asked. “It’s because they have a revolving council.”
The Howard City Village Council has seen some turnover lately.
Cheryl Smith was appointed to the council in June and Tesha Gould was appointed in July.
Rosenberger, who was just appointed last April, announced his resignation at Monday’s meeting as he is moving out of the village. The council voted to appoint Bruce Mac Tavish to fill Rosenberger’s seat.
“In my opinion, I should see an apology from them,” VanWagner said. “It’s demeaning me, it’s demeaning my department. I welcome every single one of those people to come over and spend a day with us.”
The DPW is comprised of VanWagner and four others —full-time employees Bill Cornelisse, Joe Cornelisse and Joe Krogman and part-time employee Shane Smith.
VanWagner’s interview with The Daily News was cut short Tuesday when he and his employees had to respond to a house fire.
The job description of the Howard City DPW requires all employees to double as firefighters, and they get paid per run in addition to their DPW wages.