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Lowell DPW keeps water flowing during pandemic

The Lowell Department of Public Works is responsible for the maintenance of critical infrastructure in the community such as streets, water, parks, sewers and the cemetery. Therefore, most DPW employees are considered essential workers and have been going to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our DPW staff are working very hard and doing a lot of necessary work the public does not necessarily see,” said Lowell city manager Michael Burns.
“None of our work has gone away,” said Lowell DPW director Daniel Czarnecki. “The utility guys are maintaining the systems. The parks/streets guys are keeping potholes patched, preparing the parks for when they can reopen and other necessary spring duties.”
Czarnecki said he particularly regrets not being able to keep the cemetery up to its regular level of upkeep.
“Our streets/parks full-time employees have also taken on the work at Oakwood Cemetery for burials, lot sales and some of the maintenance,” Czarnecki said. “We have not yet replaced the cemetery sexton [Don DeJong]. With the current pandemic situation we are on hold to fill that position [and] we have not brought back the part time employees. They are the ones who keep the cemetery mowed and the downtown areas maintained and looking nice, along with the cemetery sexton. [...] We have been fortunate, knock on wood, that we haven't had an overabundance of burials here in Lowell, but it is spring and that's when they seem to come in. If people had a family member who passed away over the winter, a lot of people wait until now when it's a little nicer to do the burial. But there are issues with funerals right now because of social distancing, which is tough. That makes it even harder.”
Czarnecki was interviewed on Thursday, April 23, just before the ban on landscaping was lifted. Now that it's allowed, the cemetery will return to the regular grooming schedule.
“We maintain the cemetery with part-time people,” Czarnecki said. “They help with the burials, they help dig the holes and they help clean up when it's done. Well, those people are all gone right now. We don't have any part time people, so we're not maintaining the cemetery at the moment. If you look out the window, the grass looks nice and green, it's starting to get long...”
Social distancing is a must nowadays, but many of the DPW's duties would either be impossible or prohibitively inefficient for a single individual to attempt.
“We have two groups of employees,” Czarnecki said. “We have our streets, parks and cemetery folks and we've got our utilities, water and sewer. They are doing all of our spring work that they typically do. There are lots of potholes to patch! The streets and parks employees are prepping the parks, getting them opened up, taking care of damages from whatever fell apart during winter, keeping the playgrounds taped off so people know not to go play on them, patching potholes, putting signs back up that got knocked down – just all of our typical spring projects. We are still trying to move forward with them, but we have many jobs that one person can't do. You could patch potholes with one person, but it would take forever. They would have to drive down the road, stop, get out, patch a pothole, get back in, move down the road, get out of the car... As you're moving along, if you can have somebody walking behind you to do that, it makes it so much easier and it's so much less time-consuming. Our utility workers, if they have to go into a manhole or if they have to go into somebody's house, that's not something that we usually do with one person. There are many things that, just for safety purposes, you really need two people.”
Staffing was drastically reduced during the early weeks of the pandemic, but many have returned to their posts.
“The full-time employees have continued to work hard during this time,” Czarnecki said. “Also, our part-time employees have been very understanding to the situation. [...] On March 23 we reduced our DPW full-time staff to working half time and we laid off all our part-time staff. We had one water distribution person and one street person working each day. At the water plant we also reduced staff to one full-time person working each day and no overlap of employees. Unfortunately, there are many job assignments that need two people to complete. Some are due to the work involved, and most duties need a minimum of two people for safety reasons. The workers were able to complete some work in preparation for spring. Also, some employees were able to perform computer work from home as well. Unfortunately, we are falling behind in our work and have many job duties that need attention.”
Essential workers are always at risk of exposure to COVID-19. The city has put protocols in place to sanitize equipment, vehicles and workspaces, and to reduce personal and public contact.
“On April 20, the full-time water distribution employees and the streets/parks employees returned to full-time,” Czarnecki said. “We have not brought back the part-time workers. We have set up standard operating procedures to limit our employees potential exposure to the virus. Rubber gloves, face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning materials, etc., have been provided. The employees have directions to clean and maintain their workstations on a routine basis during the day, and at the end of the day there are necessary distancing requirements for work assignments and breaks. We are reviewing other possible procedures to assist in the safety of the employees.”
“Next week our DPW staff will not be staggered,” Burns said. “They tend to work outside, so they will have separate vehicles and use proper social distancing protocols to work safely. Now the weather is hopefully getting warmer, and their work demand is becoming greater, so we made that decision.”
“While we want to think this won't be permanent, I'm expecting many of the things we are doing for the safety of the employees to protect them from the virus will need to continue,” Czarnecki said.
Staff at the water treatment plant are adhering to social distancing guidelines, but this means they've had to delay some routine maintenance and special projects for the time being. Czarnecki said that water use is up a little more than usual, but usage always increases during spring.
“The typical schedule at the water treatment plant is one person works Sunday through Thursday and the other one works Tuesday through Saturday,” Czarnecki said. “That way, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there is overlap. They're just running the plant, making sure we produce water. Any projects or things like that have been put on hold. We have two employees who do this [schedule], and it would be horrible if one got sick. If one got sick and spread it to the other one, we're in trouble! We wouldn't have anybody to run the place. What we've done is, we have one person working Sunday through Tuesday and the other person working Thursday through Saturday, and then they're taking turns with Wednesdays. We're keeping it as safe as possible for the employees and doing what we can to keep issues from happening.”
The condition of downtown streets has long been a concern of city residents and city hall. At this point, major repair projects are still going ahead as planned. Also, if you've been dreading your bill that might be generated by the city's upcoming sidewalk repair project, you're off the hook for a little while.
“We are still moving forward on our street projects for this summer,” Czarnecki said. “We also completed our sidewalk program that started late last summer. We are holding back on the residential sidewalk program for this summer due to the pandemic and the pain it is causing many citizens in Lowell. I think it would be hard to ask people to spend money to fix their sidewalks when they might be laid off or on reduced income. [...] If you'll recall, that was one of the items the city council wanted us to really work on this year. I started putting together the paperwork that we were going to send to people and the plan for how we were going to do it. That was before the pandemic came along. Now there's just no way that we can tell people, 'Fix your sidewalk!' when they've got everything else going on. If something is dangerous, we'll have to address it, but I think we'll just give it another year until we find out what 'the new normal' is and go from there.”
Czarnecki said that city leaders are concerned that the pandemic will cause a decrease in tax money collected by the state, which will cause the amount of tax revenue distributed to municipalities to decrease.
“When they're supposed to give us dollars to operate with and those funds don't come in, they can't give us as much because they don't have as much,” Czarnecki said. “That's going to effect us in the long term more than just today. So we're trying to make sure we've got that end covered as well. Street funding, for instance, is done through Act 51, which is basically the gasoline tax. Well, you've seen what gas prices have done! One of the reasons is because people aren't buying fuel, and if people aren't buying it, that means their income is less, which means we're not anticipating getting as much when they go to divvy it up. There won't be any increases, I'm sure! The only saving grace is that the gas tax is a consistent amount, it's not a percentage like the sales tax.”
To contact the Lowell DPW, call 616-897-8457 or send a message to Their office at 217 S. Hudson is currently closed to visitors.
“This is all out of our control and we are dealing with it to the best of our abilities,” Czarnecki said. “We're just like everybody else, trying to figure it out as we go along. We are still here to serve our community and are doing everything we can to continue to do so.”

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