Serving the Public

The Malden, Massachusetts Department of Public Works

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Malden is a mid-sized city in Massachusetts, located a few miles from Boston. The city is in the midst of a major public works effort to replace water pipes and make municipal garbage pickup greener and more efficient. The man spearheading these efforts is Robert “Bobby” Knox, director of Malden’s department of public works (DPW).
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“I’m in charge of water, sewers, parks, highways, street lights, traffic lights, et cetera. Any quality of life issues, the DPW handles,” says Knox, a long-time public works veteran.

Knox has been director of the DPW for five years. Prior to this position, he was assistant director for five years. Before that, he spent decades in the department, working his way up the ranks.

In recent years, the Malden DPW has been given an increasing number of civic responsibilities. The department is currently in charge of collecting and disposing of solid waste, snow removal, plowing and sanding, street sweeping, sidewalk upkeep and repairs, park maintenance, city-wide tree maintenance and planting, anti-graffiti efforts, pavement marking maintenance, signage and traffic signalization, stormwater system maintenance and drainage repairs.

Knox explains the DPW’s duties this way: “We don’t build anything. We maintain it; we clean it; we remove snow in winter. We don’t do any new construction. We do maintenance on it.”

The city Knox works in has a long history. Malden’s origins can be traced back 1640, when Puritans settled in the area. Malden was quite active during the Revolutionary War, taking an early lead in petitioning the colonial government to withdraw from what was then the British Empire.

As of 2015, Malden had a population of 61,068 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau cites Malden’s median household income (in 2014 dollars) at $55,523. Top employment sectors are management, business, science and arts occupations (36.6 percent of Malden workers), service occupations (24.8 percent), sales and office occupations (23.7 percent), production, transportation and material moving (8.7 percent) and natural resources, construction or maintenance (6.2 percent).

In recent years, Malden has been taking on something of a multi-cultural cast, with a growing Asian population. “We’re an urban town. We have a lot of restaurants. We’re one of the most diverse cities [in the state]. We have sixty different languages at Malden High School. We’re a good city,” says Knox.

As for the DPW, in the fiscal year 2016, Malden’s adopted public works department had a budget of $6.241 million. The city budget for public works is supposed to edge up slightly: for fiscal 2017, the adopted DPW budget is set at $6.499 million, with labor staffing levels maintained at twenty-seven.

One of the biggest public works projects currently ongoing in Malden concerns the replacement of aging city water pipes. Over the past four to five years, the city has replaced city pipes underneath roughly seventy-five streets. This was done to improve the quality of drinking water and to ward off any future health or safety problems connected with the antiquated pipelines. “Any of the pipes replaced were over one hundred years old. Some of the sewers were in poor condition too,” says Knox.

Streets and sidewalks on roads that were dug up are presently being restored. About sixteen streets are being repaved and restored this year. Street paving and sidewalk restoration won’t likely be complete for another two to three years, states Knox.

The pipe removal, street re-paving and sidewalk restoration efforts are being handled by subcontractors, hired by the city. The department of public works regularly fixes leaks in pipes or other small repairs, but doesn’t do “total replacement” of pipes then repaving streets. The initiative involved “multiple contracts and millions of dollars,” states Knox.

Replacing water pipes is not the only water-related project going on in Malden. The city has a new, $350,000 ‘Vactor Truck’ (an industrial vacuum truck) used to clean sewer lines, catch basins and storm sewers. “We have two staff assigned to that truck,” says Knox.

The city’s public works vehicle fleet also includes some eighteen sanders, five side loads, multiple dump trucks, Bobcats and sidewalk plows.

For the past few years, Malden has been a so-called Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) community in which residents pay to dispose their trash.

“In an effort to make us a more green community and decrease our trash, we put in Pay-As-You-Throw, which means just that. You pay two dollars for a garbage bag. The more you recycle, the less trash you have. So, it’s an incentive to increase recycling,” explains Knox.

Under the terms of the program, solid waste goes into official light blue city garbage bags (available at multiple outlets in the city, says Knox). Recyclable material and yard waste is collected at no additional cost. Recycling is picked up weekly while yard waste is collected on a seasonal basis. The city also conducts a hazardous waste recycling day twice a year. A primary household item disposed of on these occasions is paint, states Knox. Anyone who tries to skirt the system by illegally dumping solid waste garbage faces a $300 fine from a public works inspector, he says.

When it comes to new hires, the city prefers employees who have some background in construction. Having a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) with air brakes certification is also a major bonus, says Knox.

DPW workers new and old are put through a rigorous safety training process. The department has a safety committee, composed of two union officials and two management officials. The committee meets on a monthly basis to discuss various safety-related issues. All workers are required to wear proper helmets, vests and safety shoes. Many of personnel have ‘OSHA 10 cards’ (that is, cards showing they have been through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ten-hour course on construction safety) though not all, says Knox.

Knox says the DPW’s work culture is built around serving Malden citizens. “It’s all about public service. We do sidewalk repairs, pothole repairs, street sweeping seven days a week, cleaning parks, and liming fields for sporting events. It’s all about public requests and keeping our residents happy … people care about good schools, they care about public safety, they care about having clean streets,” he says.

A good example of Malden’s commitment to public service can be seen in the city’s move to embrace high-tech to make the DPW more efficient. Residents can now use an app and website called SeeClickFix to request repairs via a smartphone or a computer.

“So if a call comes in to fill a pothole, it gets logged,” says Knox, who adds that residents can check up on the progress of repairs through the same app.

Not only has SeeClickFix made it easier for residents to request repairs, but it has also streamlined the repair process for the public works department itself. Previously, repair requests would be listed on a piece of paper which was passed on in turn to public works crews. Now repair requests can be easily bunched together according to location, which means work crews are not racing from one end of the city to another to tackle disparate repairs, says Knox.

Anyone who wants to see how the program works can go to www.SeeClickFix.com then do a search on Malden, he states. People can view requests that have come into the Malden DPW and see how the department responded to them.

Knox says the biggest challenge he faces comes down to the city budget. “The biggest challenge here is always money. Having enough money to do what you want. We do a lot, but we could always do more. I’d like to pave more streets. I’d like to do more sidewalks. It comes down to having funds available … when I first started in public works, it was parks, highway and forestry. Now we do so much more. We’ve taken on a lot of new responsibilities over the last four of five years,” he states.

Indeed, a commentary for fiscal 2016 adopted budget notes how the city was “entering the second year of the consolidation of the public works department and water utilities department.”

Knox attributes the DPW’s growing number of duties to budgetary pressures and simply the city government having faith in his department’s ability to take on new responsibilities. The DPW is “run well. We have a good staff. We’re accountable, and we do good work,” he states.

Knox has every intention of maintaining this reputation, even as the department’s commitments expand while continuing to foster an ethos of public service.

“Our staff does a good job dealing with the public. You can’t always solve every problem, but we do our best to resolve issues,” he says.

October 20, 2017, 12:18 PM EDT

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