People who work in local governments across the nation all know something that most of the taxpaying public doesn’t: Public Works is difficult work.
In Wicomico County, pretty much nothing goes on without the Public Works Department’s involvement or oversight. Public Works is the intensely physical portion of government — its contractors, engineers and laborers keep things maintained while also seeking to bring progress to a community.
In Wicomico County, Public works is divided into the Roads Division and Solid Waste — neither especially glamorous, each incredibly important.
Wicomico’s Roads Division is responsible for maintaining nearly 700 miles of roads, two ferries, nine dams and 26 bridges. Its fleet consists of 111 tagged vehicles, 43 pieces of specialty equipment and 35 implements. The division oversees the county’s only fuel depot and maintains the fleet of a dozen other departments. The normal workforce is approximately 70 employees.
The Solid Waste Division is responsible for landfill, recycling, and dredging operations. Its fleet consists of 39 tagged vehicles, 32 pieces of specialty equipment and 14 implements. The normal workforce is approximately 60 employees.
Heading all of this is Lee Beauchamp, a 32-year-old Salisbury native, who is often cited as one of the community’s young leaders.
Q. You’ve offered some interesting insights recently on the possibility of solar farms in the county.
A. The solar farm concept is a win for both the county taxpayer and the environment. This project allows the county to repurpose the land for power generation at half the price paid on the electric grid.
And it is clean energy produced locally. This initiative allows the county to reinvest energy savings into core services such as road paving and/or education.
Q. Some people are skeptical about the new technologies. What points do you make to try and change their viewpoints?
A. When it comes to new technologies I am not one to try something that has never been done before.
I would rather look at technologies that have been implemented in other parts of the world and see if they can be adapted to fit our needs as a county government.
A perfect example is the solar farm project. This has been done all over Maryland including other counties on the Eastern Shore. We took the “new technology” and customized it to fit our needs. I have a saying that I use with staff as we work through challenges. “Don’t try to re-invent the wheel.”
And I say this because somewhere around the country or the world, another public works department had the same challenges and overcame it. We can all learn from that.
Q. You’re about to open the new Westside Collector Road near the Brick Kiln Landfill. When will that be open and where does it go?
A. Greg, this is a project that everyone is excited to see completed. And as with many road projects, cannot come fast enough.
The phase currently under construction will be complete this fall and will go from Brick Kiln Road to Levin Dashiell Road. This coming spring the next phase connecting Levin Dashiell with Crooked Oak Lane will be put out to bid, with the construction estimated to take about one year to complete.
Q. So that road will help people living west and south of Salisbury to more-quickly access the northern shopping district?
A. Yes, this connection has been planned since the Centre at Salisbury was built in the mid 1990’s. With the growth on the north end of Salisbury, it will be a welcome alternative to Route 13 Business.
The road will also have a hiker/biker path that will allow multi-modal access over our growing network of shared use roads.
Q. Do you ever envision beltway around Salisbury?
A. The engineer in me says yes but I think most residents like the option to take the ferry across the Wicomico River.
There are not too many places left for people to have that experience.
Q. I guess if there were to be a beltway, there would have to be a bridge constructed over the Wicomico River. With the environmental laws and concerns, could such a project ever be approved?
A. Anything is possible, however we have to look at the big picture functionality of a full beltway.
Yes it would allow residents to access the west and south sections of the County much easier; however, another bridge over the Wicomico River would really challenge the continued economic viability of commerce on the river.
Q. Back to the landfill, when I’m at the landfill, I always notice the methane collection area. How does that work?
A. It really is pretty simple. Think of the landfill as a pot of water boiling on the stove. The lid on the pot only allows the steam to escape through a small hole to keep it from boiling over.
In the case of a landfill, organic waste decomposes and creates methane gas that acts like steam rising from a pot of boiling water. The gas is collected through a series of pipes then sent to a generator that converts the gas into electricity.
Q. But you have an even bigger project in mind — talk about your Waste To Energy Gasification Plant.
A. The energy from waste process is part of the bigger plan of a Resource Recovery Park. This concept allows material to be recovered from the waste stream while the remaining waste is converted into energy that is used to power the facility and surrounding business.
This type of project is happening all over the country and world as landfills reach capacity. The great part about this concept is now we are taking material that was considered waste and creating economic growth through job creation and energy production.
Q. Some might see it as a risky project.
A. Honestly Greg, I believe it is even riskier to continue placing waste in a pile, covering it with dirt and thinking it is gone from our lives.
As people continue to reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill, the revenue generated has dropped to a point where the Solid Waste Division of Public Works is operating at a deficit. If this trend continues, there could be a reduction in other County services to help fund the landfilling operation — that is where the real risk is.
To mitigate that risk we need to change our business model to that of resource recovery where what we throw out as garbage is used as a tool for economic stability and development verses a pile of trash in a landfill.
Q. And the underground leachate is collected and collected and treated at a sewage treatment plant?
A. Yes, leachate is collected much like methane gas is but in reverse. Leachate is water from waste and rain that is collected at the bottom of the landfill through a series of pipes that convey it to holding tanks.
Once in the tanks, it is then transferred to a tanker truck where it is sent to the city of Salisbury wastewater treatment plant. This is one of the areas where we work closely with the city of Salisbury as the leachate is exchanged for the sludge that is generated from the wastewater treatment process.
This arrangement has been in place for many years and is really a great relationship for both governments.
Q. A planner told me once that Wicomico’s landfill is poorly located, that as Salisbury has grown, the landfill sits in a spot that should be available for development. Would that ever be a possibility?
A. I do not think there is ever an “ideal” location for a landfill, however logistically it does work well with excellent access from both Route 50 and Route 13. I would not think of future use of the landfill as development but repurpose.
There are many locations around the county where landfills have been converted to hiking/biking parks for residents. Other governments have started to reclaim landfill waste then reuse the airspace for additional waste placement.
Q. I understand the landfill’s life-capacity estimate is 34 years. Might the county ever need to build another landfill in another more remote location?
A. The reality is — there is only 24 years of capacity left in the landfill. The goal is to have Wicomico County move towards a zero waste model where through resource recovery, recycling, reduction, and reuse we can extend the life of the current landfill to around 80 years.
At that point a new landfill would need to be sited or technologies of the day could render landfill obsolete.
Q. What role might recycling play in adding years to the landfill?
A. County wide we recycle approximately 30 percent of what is thrown in the garbage. There is always room for improvement.
As we change our business model it will allow for additional recycling opportunities. For example, Solid Waste Division staff has been working on a mattress recycling program with an Eastern Shore business partner that will be unveiled very soon. This recycling effort keeps bulky mattresses out of the landfill and is creating jobs.
These are the kinds of approaches to recycling and/or material recovery we will see in the future to extend the life of the landfill.
Q. Does this community recycle as much as it should? Can the public be better encouraged to recycle?
A. I see the county as having mixed participation in recycling efforts. With a county spread out over 700 miles of roads, it is challenging to provide a cost effective and environmentally responsible model that can get us to the recycling levels seen in more urban counties.
Through the proposed Resource Recovery Park recyclables will be removed from the waste stream. So if you do forget to put your empty water bottle in the recycling bin it can be recovered before it is placed in the landfill.
In the meantime, I have been looking for ways that we can partner with community stakeholders to improve recycling. A great example of this is going on right now with a partnership at Salisbury University.
County staff is working with advertising majors this semester to develop an ad campaign on a method of recycling collection called single stream recycling. Single stream recycling allows all recyclable material to be comingled, so it reduces the need for residents to source separate.
Through the ad campaign, we want to educate the public about the new collection model and what materials can be recycled.
Q. People often grumble about the fee to use the landfill or transfer stations. Is that money put to good use?
A. There is no way around it — solid waste management is an expensive business.
Between the regulatory challenges and the movement away from landfilling, I only see it becoming more expensive unless we change our approach.
The way to overcome this challenge is to work regionally with other counties on solid waste management strategies that allow us all to pool our resources together. To this end we are investigating how other counties in Maryland have developed co-ops such as the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.
This organization has six counties that have band together to provide solid waste solutions that allow them to have the highest recycling rates in the state and affordable waste management for their residents.
Q. One of your responsibilities is the Upper and Whitehaven ferries.
A. It’s definitely an interesting challenge managing the ferries because they are unique to public works. Many people are not aware of the convenience they provide to area citizens.
With that said, the ferries do have to come out for repairs every few years which may present an inconvenience to travelers.
We often face the challenge of letting people know in real time if the ferries are running but we are working on developing an app that would allow people to check on their phones.
Q. In a recent Q&A interview, the county schools superintendent mentioned that Wicomico has unique roads — narrow, many without shoulders, very deep ditches. That had never occurred to me before.
A. Many of the roads we travel on evolved from farm to market roads – once dirt roads that over time became paved surfaces.
The challenge we face is that we do not have the right of way to develop wide ditches and wide shoulders.
We are conscious of this problem and I encourage residents to contact us and we will be happy to make an effort to address any problem or challenge they are dealing with.
Q. Does that make for uniques maintenance problems/challenges?
A. Greg, the fact is, in Wicomico County, there is only 48 feet of elevation change which means we don’t have much elevation to drain water off our roads which presents maintenance challenges and allows debris to clog pipes and inlets easier.
Q. I understand that there’s a $30 million backlog in county roads projects.
A. Yes … there is a backlog in road surface treatments. With the loss of highway user revenues several years ago, our road treatment has been halted for the past 5 years.
Now we are investing in a road pavement management program to survey the roads and prioritize needed repairs.
We are looking at pavement preservation techniques — tar and chip, micro-surfacing — that will allow us to treat 120 miles of road this year compared to the 11 miles of road we paved last year.
When you break it down, the cost to pave a road is $11 a square yard versus a preservation technique like micro-surfacing that costs $2 a square yard.
Q. Talk about your Chesapeake Bay Watershed Projects.
A. It’s hard to really start in one spot because there are so many projects dedicated to Chesapeake Bay Watershed Protection.
We recently received a state grant for $545,000 to construct eight projects involving storm-water runoff filtration practices at county facilities. This will allow us to filter the sediment runoff and ultimately help in efforts to preserve the bay.
We have another six projects under design and hope to continue to pursue other grant opportunities to make these projects become reality.
Q. Talk about your ideas for expanding Salisbury’s port.
A. I don’t think it’s about expanding the port – I think it’s more about making the port more appealing to economic development and commerce on the Wicomico River.
There are several projects that will benefit the area by using the port system – one being the potential use of the port for Maryland’s Offshore Wind Energy project.
As the port of Salisbury is Maryland’s second largest port we want to take advantage of the opportunity to utilize the infrastructure we have here and market the capabilities of the port of Salisbury.
We are currently developing a strategic plan for the port of Salisbury through a partnership with Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. We will be presenting this report in the next few months.
Q. You grew up in Salisbury. What’s it like to be in a professional role that allows you to serve the community?
A. I moved out of the area after college because I wanted to experience different parts of the country but I always knew I wanted to come back and serve as a public works director for Wicomico County.
I value the time I spent away from home but was fortunate to have the opportunity to come back and use my local knowledge of the area in conjunction with my experience in the field to benefit Wicomico County.
Q. You previously worked for the city’s Public Works Department. What was the transition like to the county government?
A. The services we provide are much different when you look at what I did in my role with the city compared to what public works does for the county.
While we both provide services where people live, the service area within the city is much more compact than that in the county.
I made many connections when I worked for the city that helped when I made my transition to the county. Having established relationships with people within the city opens the door to partnerships that will ultimately enhance the synergy and efficiencies between our city and county government.
Q. You’re often cited as an example of the young leadership that helping to change and improve Salisbury. Is that a comfortable role? Do you feel that the community is changing?
A. You are not the first person that has mentioned this.
Every time I talk about it I find it interesting to see peers my age that moved out of the area to develop their careers, coming back and serving in leadership roles around the community. I think it’s fantastic!
When I talk to my mentors in this community they talk about a revitalization of sorts that occurred in the past. And now after the recent recession we are seeing the same efforts taking place, sparking new life and energy into the local economy and community.
Q. People seem to like to make fun of government employees and politicians sometimes.
A. I can only thank the leadership of Wicomico County for allowing me the opportunity to serve in this role.
First and foremost I want to thank the staff of public works as they are the unsung heroes of our community, providing services we take advantage of on a daily basis. They maintain our roadways and sustain our landfill operations in all types of weather.
I have been impressed with the talent of our workforce from day one and look forward to the continued success of the organization as we provide services to support the residents of Wicomico County.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com