New public works director has plenty on his plate
Our new public works director, Kevin Brunner, started this month. Brunner replaces Shane Crawford, who left in January to work in what has turned out to be the much cooler climate of Madeira Beach, Fla. Brunner is no stranger to Walworth County. He served as Whitewater’s city manager for the past eight years.
Brunner brings some unique qualifications to the job. His career in local government spans 33 years. In addition to Whitewater, he has held the top position in the Wisconsin municipalities of Saukville, Monona and DePere. In 2000, he took a break from government service to manage the buildings and property of the Diocese of Green Bay. That experience should serve him well, considering a big part of his new job will be to oversee our facilities and infrastructure.
It might have seemed like foot dragging, but I wanted to be deliberate in this job search. While the nomination is mine to make under the statutes, over the years I have come to trust less in my intuitive ability to find the perfect department head and value the input of others. Our county board chair, Nancy Russell, and employee relations director Suzi Hagstrom helped me in the process, as did an evaluator from outside of the county. That process included a review of resumes and references, a written exercise and interview.
After I made my selection, the county board took over. Our public works committee interviewed Brunner and recommended him to the full board, which confirmed him on May 17. Before starting with us, Brunner needed to finish up his work in Whitewater, which added another 60 days. Considering that Whitewater’s success is integral to the county’s success, I had no intention of trying to speed up that period.
The upshot of all of this is that Brunner now has an in-basket waiting for him that I don’t envy. Knowing the way that he approaches every challenge, I have no doubt that he will be pressing me for additional assignments before the end of summer. This will be good news for county taxpayers as our public works department continues to improve from a very strong organization into an excellent one.
To put Brunner’s in-basket into perspective, it’s important to keep in mind some of the recent history of our public works department. Had he known better in 2004 when he joined our county, I suspect Crawford might have passed on our job. Fortunately, he didn’t and he and his team fixed design problems at our judicial center and went on to oversee construction of our new nursing home and special needs school. When those projects were complete, the department managed to remodel the old courthouse and demolish the old nursing home and annex buildings. During all of this activity, the operations of highways and facilities divisions, which were originally two separate departments, were more fully merged. The head count of this combined operation dropped by nearly 20 full-time equivalent positions between 2002 and 2012. With that history in mind, some projects for our new director include the following:
-- Maintain what we have. During a period of historically low interest rates, we built an infrastructure that should serve the county well into the future. The taxpayers did their part by paying the millions of dollars needed to transform our campus. It is now the responsibility of those of us in county government, led by our public works department, to maintain that investment. Developing the proper procedures and systems to maximize the lives of these assets might seem like dull work compared to holding groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. As we learned during the past decade, however, the cost of deferring maintenance is too high.
-- No surprises. Replacing a boiler or re-roofing a building are thankless projects. The best possible outcome is that no one knows the work ever occurred. All other scenarios usually mean that something went wrong. With fewer employees and tighter budgets, our margin for error for smoothly implementing these projects diminishes each year. Identifying and integrating these projects into our budget process and departmental operations, therefore, will be critical to our future success.
-- Increased input from the board. Capital planning during much of the past decade consisted of putting out fires. Budget pressures and failing buildings largely dictated our decisions. With our infrastructure in better shape, we can be more deliberate in our planning process. Rather than reviewing the entire capital plan during the eight-week budget process, we have the luxury of slowing the process down. One area that will benefit from this increased attention is our road program. The amount we spend on road construction has increased dramatically in recent years. My hope is that a thorough review of our highway maintenance policies and budget will reduce the amount we spend rebuilding roads after they have failed.
In addition to these projects, our public works department will need to keep up with their “usual” work, like plowing snow during blizzards and responding to pavement blow-ups like the kind caused by our recent heat wave. Fortunately, we have a good crew that will get even better as our public works department starts a new chapter this month.