Townies: Working for the Public

Every day in Marana, a web of visible and invisible systems operates behind the scenes.  Officers patrol the streets.  Engineers plan out the roads.  Accountants balance the budget.  You, the taxpayer, trust us to keep this machine running.  A few times each year, we’ll be sharing how that happens, profiling each of these departments, pulling back the veil to reveal what makes Marana’s government tick.   We hope that by taking you behind the scenes, you’ll not only gain a deeper understanding of how your government functions, but also help us improve by sharing your perspectives on these processes.  Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy this Marana Newsroom original series, Townies.

***

“It was so cool!” Public Works Executive Assistant Loren Churchman remembers.  “It was like a little factory.  It heats up the material, which is a 30-pound rubber block, then pushes it down a hose and into the crack in the asphalt, which is then washed clean.  On the day it arrived, everyone wanted to admire our new toy.”    

Few people are as excited about crack sealers as Marana’s public works staff.  The thirty nine employees of this department maintain Marana’s 511 lane miles, enforce the Town code, manage a vast fleet of over 200 vehicles, and oversee the operations of 38 buildings.  With so much to do, it’s little surprise that a highly efficient tool for improving roads would attract widespread attention. 

Recently, we had the chance to spend a few days with some of the Public Works crews.  We got to see what they do day in and day out, and more importantly, we got to know them as individuals.  They’re heavy machine operators, concrete finishers, landscapers, inmate coordinators, shop foremen, and asphalt spreaders.  They’re also pizza lovers, doting fathers, and dollhouse builders.  They’re public servants, and it’s fascinating to learn how they serve the public.

***

On a cold December morning, Marana’s asphalt team prepared to head out into the field.  Donning a fluorescent vest and steel-toed boots, Ruben Cruz climbed into one of the team’s trucks.  “My father spent 38 years working on asphalt for the City of Tucson.  I’ve been with Marana for 16 years.”

You could say he knows a thing or two about pavement.

Ruben works as part of a quartet of Bunyan-esque laborers who are responsible for maintaining almost every inch of asphalt that’s on Town rights-of-way, including streets, driveways, and parking lots.  

Before the day’s work could begin, though, the team needed one crucial ingredient: the asphalt itself.  Three tons of it.  Keith Francis, the team’s supervisor, drove a lumbering truck to the Orange Grove Asphalt Plant, where the molten material was dropped from a towering mixer into a massive heater on the back of the “patcher,” Keith’s affectionate name for his truck.  Orchestrated through an inscrutable series of buzzes, he manages to weigh his empty truck, accept 6000 pounds of hot asphalt, and reweigh his full truck without using a single smart device.   The light and horn signals that communicate when to stop, drive forward, and depart were devised decades ago, and appear built to survive any number of apocalyptic horrors.  If the end days ever do arrive, Marana’s paved surfaces may fare surprisingly well.

By 8:00 A.M., the team has arrived in Continental Ranch, where they’ll spend the day repairing nine cracks.  When the asphalt crew fills in a fissure, it has two options: use the new crack sealer or dig up the entire space around the crack and fill it in with asphalt.  For narrow cracks, the sealer is the perfect tool, but today, these cracks all exceed two inches in width, requiring a more extensive repair. 

Marana’s Public Works staff love to use jargon. They love it even more if it rhymes. When they tear up a section of pavement so that they can replace it with new material, they call it a “mill and fill,” and that’s what the crew was up to on this wintry morning. 

The first step was to mill a rectangle of old asphalt around the crack.  Picture a glass cube mounted on wheels.  Inside is room for a single seat and a set of controls.  Attached to the front is a box drum with powerful teeth that can chew through asphalt.  Slowly and carefully, Marcel Rodriguez, a third member of the team, drove the pavement eater over the crack, following its path from the middle of the street to the sidewalk, breaking the asphalt surrounding it into small pieces of rubble.  When he reached the curb, the drum hummed to a halt and Marcel surveyed the wreckage.  Now the real work began.

There are lots of ways to break asphalt, but once it has been broken, there’s only one way to remove it.  Shovels and muscles.  Taking turns, each crew member buried his shovelhead in the newly cut trough and heaved the contents into the bed of a nearby pick-up.  As they worked, a sweeper quickly brushed scattered bits of debris back into the hole, ensuring that when they finished, the street would remain as clean as they found it. 

The ditch now empty, it was time to prepare the surface for the new asphalt.  First, Keith and Marcel rim the edges with pitch black tack oil. “Don’t get near this stuff,” they caution.  This would account for the black spots all over their jeans. 

Finally, they’re ready for the hot asphalt.  The heater attached to Keith’s patch truck holds the material at a balmy 275°F.  Using a lever above the rear bumper, Tomas Gonzalez tips the container on the back of the truck so that it’s almost vertical.  With another lever, he opens a door which allows the asphalt to ooze into the trench.  Quickly and carefully, Keith, Marcel, and Ruben begin spreading the steaming asphalt before it hardens. 

“If he pours too much,” Keith warns, “he has to shovel it back into the truck, all by himself.”  Marcel and Ruben start laughing behind him. 

“Not a serious bone in their bodies,” mutters Keith, walking away.

The asphalt poured and spread, the team is almost done repairing the first crack.  All that’s left is the steel wheel.  While it’s tempting to picture the kind of machine that left the cartoon roadrunner flat as a pancake, this roller is only a little bigger than a Harley-Davidson.  As Marcel maneuvers it over the freshly poured asphalt, the soft surface rises ahead of him like a swell on the ocean.  Back and forth he drives, flattening every inch of the filler until it is flush with the street.  When he backs up for the last time, the crack is a distant memory.  A long rectangle slightly darker than the surrounding pavement is all that remains.  Only eight more cracks to go.

As the morning progresses, the team drops into a steady routine.  Mill, shovel, glue, pour, spread, roll, repeat.  They tease each other’s foibles, never failing to comment if one crew member misses a spot with the broom or drops a few handfuls of dirt as he tosses it into the truck. 

“It makes the time go by quicker,” observes Tomas, the newest member of the team.  Six months ago, he transferred to public works from Parks and Recreation.  He’s had to learn a whole new job since starting with the crew, but he likes the change of pace.  The work is hard and the hours long, but it’s clear that Keith, Ruben, Marcel, and Tomas find a certain satisfaction from the labor.  At the end of the day, they’ve transformed the drive on a residential road from a turbulent ride to a smooth roll. 

***

In many ways, Keith, Ruben, Marcel, and Tomas are the public face of their department, but when they seal a crack or fill in a pothole, they’re relying on a complex system which enables them to do this work.  On the day they sealed nine cracks, they used five different vehicles to get the job done.  They work hard to maintain these tools, but occasionally, things break.  When they do, it’s time for Marana’s fleet team to step in.

“If it’s got an engine, we take care of it.” 

Pete Barker rocks back on his heels, sipping a steaming cup of coffee in the cavernous garage of the fleet division.  For six years, Pete has overseen the shop’s operation as superintendent.  The sun has barely risen over the Tortolitas, and his cheerful voice greets his mechanics.  Having helped to maintain the Army’s motor pool in both Gulf Wars, Pete is no stranger to early mornings.  Outside the bay doors wait a throng of vehicles, each requiring the expertise of Pete’s team. 

The first patient of the morning is a police cruiser in for a routine check-up.  An oil change, a tire check, a windshield wiper fluid refill, and it’s on its way.   Rich Sieger runs through the full systems check with a quick and thorough eye.  Though you wouldn’t know it from watching him, he hasn’t always been a car guy.

“I started out working in a kitchen.  A friend of my family asked if I wanted to work in his shop.  I didn’t know a thing about engines, but he said he’d teach me everything.  All I had to do was work hard.  The pay was better in the shop, so my decision was pretty easy.  Looking back, I guess it worked out.”

Next up is a mid-2000s Toyota Camry which Town staff use for a variety of functions.  With almost 100,000 miles on its odometer, this car is nearing the end of its time in Marana.  “At 125,000 miles, maintenance costs start to pile up.  At that point, it makes more sense to put the car up for auction and replace it with a newer model,” explains James Miller.  Ten years ago, he started out in Fleet Services as an entry-level technician, and today, he’s now the shop’s foreman, one step below Pete. 

“I still enjoy the routine maintenance of cars, but my favorite part of the job is diagnosing what’s gone wrong when a breakdown occurs.”  Later that day, James’s skills will be put to the test.

When things are going well, the garage at Fleet Services can feel quiet, almost sleepy.  A steady stream of tire and oil changes keeps the mechanics busy.  In one corner, a contractor tints the windows of a new, undercover police car.  In the opposite corner, Joe McGraw tinkers away on a small engine.  In the center bay, Eric Amaro switches dried out tires for slick, new replacements.  Ask each mechanic how he found his calling, and their responses rarely vary: “I’ve kind of always been into cars.”  They’ve been doing this so long, they don’t even remember how they started in the first place.

Cars aren’t the only responsibility of Fleet Services, though.  There are lots of engines in the Town, and not all are attached to chassis and wheels.  Once a month, James, the foreman, is tasked with servicing a network of generators that provide back-up power at various locations.  One of those locations is on top of a mountain.

The road up to the summit of Beacon Hill, a lesser peak in the northern Tucson range, is blocked by a swinging gate.  Securing the gate is a chain made of interlinking padlocks: if you have the key for one, you can open the gate.  Jumping from the cab of his Silverado, James quickly figures out which lock his key opens, throws open the gate, and drives through. 

At first, as far as dirt roads go, this one isn’t so bad.  A few ruts, a few sandy patches, but otherwise passable for the heavy duty truck.  In tow is a trailer filled with fuel for the generator.  As James carefully steers his truck up the mountain, the road gradually steepens to a worrying incline.  At one point, a cement pad replaces the dirt surface, but it’s questionable whether this improves things.  With loose gravel littered across the way, it’s easy to picture slipping tires scrambling in vain to find stable purchase.  James’s steely determination never flags, though, and soon he has guided the truck to the ridgeline that will take him to the Town’s generator. 

When he reaches an area enclosed by a chain-link fence, he’s arrived at his destination.  The only problem?  The truck has to go in trailer-first, and James has an area the size of a spacious living room in which to turn around.  With precipitous drop-offs on all sides, he executes what must have been a 20-point turn.  His passenger is grateful for his expertise.

The trailer in place, it’s time to fill the generator’s tank.  While the gas is pumping, James can take a moment to look around.  From this aerie, he can gaze out over the whole Tucson region.  To the north, I-10 winds around Picacho Peak.  To the east, Mt. Lemmon’s broad summit is cloaked in white from a recent snowfall.  To the west, farmers harvest the last of their cotton fields.  Not a bad perch.

Once the tank has enough fuel for the next month, James coils the hose back into the trailer.  Before he’s ready to drive back down the mountain, he has to manually test the generator to make sure it’s ready to go.  Opening a panel on the side of the generator, he flips a switch. 

A second of silence.  Another second.  Another second. 

Suddenly, a loud boom bursts from the back of the generator.  James leaps backward, stunned by the ear-rattling explosion.  This is the first time that day that he’s registered any level of surprise.

“Whoa.”

Carefully, he makes his way around to the back of the generator.  Opening a panel gingerly, he reveals a row of batteries.  The culprit is identified quickly.  Acid drips down its side, and a pool has already formed on the generator’s cement pad.  Thanks to the a couple safety precautions (1. Put the batteries away from the power switch.  2. Don’t stand next to the batteries when you turn on the power.), James escapes unscathed.

Recovered from the initial shock, James begins evaluating his next steps.  The generator only provides back-up power, so the antenna it supports will continue to operate.  Marana PD, which relies on this tower for its radio communications, can continue to operate. 

James roots around in his truck to see if he has any battery acid neutralizer.  No luck.  He calls down to the shop, his cell phone signal relayed by one of the other nearby towers.  Within minutes a new battery is ordered and en route.  The shop already has the neutralizer he needs.  The fleet crew may not have expected the battery to burst, but they’re ready to handle the situation.  They’ve even got an on-call schedule in place in case the repair can’t be finished during the workday.  Within hours, this battery will be replaced.  Only one question remains: why did it explode in the first place?

When James gets back to the shop, he immediately begins dissecting the question with his colleagues.  Maybe the sulphate built up, suggests Pete.  Was there a noticeable odor?  James nods.  This particular battery was three years old, and as batteries age, sediment builds up inside.  Eventually, this sediment pushes two plates together, causing the battery to short circuit.  When that happens, loud noises soon follow.  By now, James has a new battery, battery acid neutralizer, and an explanation.  By the next morning, the generator will be good as new.

In the late afternoon, the last car of the day rolls slowly out the garage door.  A Crown-Victoria with a loose center console, Rich has replaced the bolt that holds it to the car.  A few police officers have gathered near the back of the shop to hear updates on their cars.  Pete wanders down from his office to catch up with old friends.  As a tableau, they unintentionally symbolize the interconnectedness of the Town’s operations.   Police can only patrol if they’ve got working cars.  The asphalt crew can only seal cracks if its equipment is properly maintained.  The Deputy Town Manager can only go to meetings if the Town’s vehicles are serviced regularly.  It’s an ecosystem, after all, and Public Works is right in the thick of it.  They maintain the bones of this Town, and it’s easy to overlook them, until the moment they break down.  Thanks to the work of Keith, Marcel, Ruben, Tomas, Pete, Rich, John, James, Eric, and so many others, that rarely happens.  They make sure the ecosystem works.  Public Works.