CANDIDATE FORUM: Matthew Rappley & Brian Wendling Battle for the Significant But Little Understood Position of Saginaw Public Works Commissioner

Posted In: Politics, Local, Candidates, Interviews,   From Issue 751   By: Robert E Martin

12th July, 2012     0

A significant contested race that often falls under the radar because people tend to take the position for granted is that of Saginaw County Public Works Commissioner, which in this case pits Democratic incumbent Matthew Rappley against challenger Brian Wendling.
 
Rappley has served as Deputy Public Works Commissioner for 14 years and has served as the current commissioner for 14 years, while Wendling has served 16 years with the Saginaw County Road Commission, spending the last four as Manager.
 
Public Works encompasses a widely varied latitude of projects and responsibilities ranging from the infrastructure of municipalities' water, sewage, and drainage systems, to the safety of roads and bridges, which are pivotal to economic growth.  Simultaneously these fundamental and major construction projects are being forced to maintain a structural integrity while operating under the added pressure of budgetary restraints and cutbacks.
 
A perfect case exists with the state of our nation's bridges. Despite billions of dollars in federal, state and local funds directed toward the maintenance of existing bridges, 69.223 bridges in the USA are classified currently as 'structurally deficient', requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.
 
In Saginaw County from Thomas, Bridgeport, Carrollton, Saginaw, and Saginaw Township, an alarming 27 bridges have been classified as being structurally deficient, according to Transportation for America, which you can find more details about on their website at www.t4america.org.
 
Two key problems persist: while Congress has repeated declared bridge safety a national priority, existing federal programs don't ensure that aging bridges actually get fixed; and the current level of investment is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with our rapidly growing backlog of aging bridges.
 
While one would think this would be such a non-partisan issue, it appears that giving huge tax loopholes to Wall Street by gutting Dodd-Frank reforms and making the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory for all students is more important legislation than making sure that bridges are safe enough for students to get to schools upon.
 
Be that as it may, within this context you can see the significance and importance of the role of a Public Works Commissioner; and hopefully you find this Candidate Forum helpful and informative.
 
Review: Please state your background and qualifications in terms of how it best prepares and positions you to effectively handle the duties & responsibilities of Public Works Commissioner?
 
Rappley: I have been the current Public Works Commissioner since June of 2011 and prior to that served as the Deputy Public Works Commissioner for 14 years.  I have been working for local Townships and the people of Saginaw County developing strong relationships and finding common sense solutions for 15 years. 
 
Before starting work in the Public Works Commissioner's Office, I worked at Spicer Engineering for 7 years and gained a vast amount of knowledge in designing, building, and overseeing large public works projects.  I have a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering with an emphasis in Watershed Management from Michigan State University.  I am a lifelong resident of Saginaw County and currently live in Tittabawassee Township.  My wife Julie and I are fortunate to share our lives with our two wonderful children; Madeline 10 and Hayden 7.
 
Wendling: I am a graduate of Ferris State University and have spent the last 19 years working with public utilities such as water, sewer, open drains, roads and bridges.  During that time, I have been involved with every aspect of each type of project including survey, design, construction, inspection, and budgets.  Having worked in every area of a project, you develop skills that allow you to view a project from a different perspective including that of those you are working for. 
 
There is a lot more to this position than building projects.  There is a budget to manage, staff to oversee, equipment to maintain, assessments to create, and an image to uphold.  My 16 years with the Road Commission, the last 4 as the Manager, have provided me with the necessary skills to say that I am the only candidate with all of the necessary experience.   
 
Review: What do you feel are the top priorities of this position and why do you think you are prepared to better implement and oversee these responsibilities than your opponent?
 
Rappley: Serving the Local Units of Government with drainage solutions, maintenance projects, and the ability to perform public works projects through this office is our core concern.  We recently completed the Village of Merrill water project, which provided municipal water for the entire Village and a portion of Jonesfield Township.  We helped the Village of Oakley by installing an entire lagoon and sanitary collection system in order to bring them into compliance with state regulations.  We perform many maintenance projects on open drainage systems throughout the county, which in turn help provide adequate storm water runoff for the residents.  Many don't fully understand our support and partnership with the local units.  Many of the storm water drains and even some of the fresh water projects are conducted from our office on behalf and with the local units of government.
 
Our most recent and visible project was working on the Alternative Energy Park in the Thomas Township & Hemlock area.  The $700,000 improvement to the Faucher Drain was a key piece to bringing the business park to this location.
 
I'm better prepared to implement and oversee the Public Works Office responsibilities as I've been doing just that for the past 15 years.  I know the local municipal players and they trust me.  I know the contractors and they respect me.  I know the hot spots when it comes to heavy rain and rapid snow melt and have dealt successfully with it for these past 15 years.  I've forged positive balanced relationships with all our partners.  The office of Public Works has and is running successfully.   We fully intend to continue that success by working with and for the people of Saginaw County.
 
Wendling: I see three issues that need to be made an immediate priority: Much of our infrastructure is at a critical state and continues to deteriorate beneath us. My opponent has publicly stated that the office has not done a project in three years, only maintenance work.  As the Public Works Commissioner, I will be out working with our local communities to develop plans that address their individual infrastructure needs and pursuing work rather than waiting for it to come to me.
 
This office should be held to the same standards as every other office at the County.  While most offices were cutting staff, my opponent and his predecessor convinced the County Board to hire additional staff, stating that it wouldn't cost the County any money because it would all be assessed against the drainage districts. 
 
The fact of the matter is that the County does pay an apportionment of all drain work; the remainder is paid for by those that live within the district. Regardless of how the position is paid for, there is a significant cost, with question of the necessity.   In addition, at the time of his appointment, my opponent said that he would combine the soil erosion work into the engineer's position.  That never happened, again costing the County a huge sum of money. 
 
As the Public Works Commissioner, I will address these issues as needed to ensure that the office is properly staffed to address any necessary issues without unnecessary expenses or long term costs.
 
The Public Works Office is and its processes are severely outdated.  Significant technological improvements need to be made to increase productivity and efficiencies, as well as improve customer relations and satisfaction.  As the Public Works Commissioner, I will see to it that this office operates at peak performance utilizing the latest technology and advancements.  Files and plans will be digitized to clean up the office, minimize storage, and create immediate access from anywhere.   Landowners will have access to all of the necessary forms, ability to create and edit, as well as submit electronically.
 
Rappley: I don't know where my opponent is coming from claiming that I have done nothing but maintenance work over the past three years. Recent projects consist of the Energy Park and Faucher Drain, this year, along with the Village of Merrill Water System, Village of Oakley Sanitary System, Kochville Sanitary, and Northwest Utility Authority Pump Station Improvements.  My opponent is apparently  unaware of the $15.2 million in public works projects attended to in the last 3 years.
 
My opponent has stated that he wants to go out and create work.  I'm all for that if asked by a municipality.  However, new projects are new assessments and new taxes.  I'm not pushing new assessments and new taxes on any of our County's population or municipalities unless requested.
No new employees have been hired in the Public Works Office since I took office in June of 2011.
 
As for office modernization, my opponents' knowledge of the technology in the office is dated back 12 years to when his father ran the office.  Since 2000 numerous new technological advancements have been implemented.  A major change was the implementation of a Geographic Information System for all drainage districts.  Additionally all computerization has been replaced and updated.
 
Wendling: This is a typical twist from that office.  I didn't “claim” that the office hasn't done any work, I simply reiterated what my opponent had said in front of approximately 50 people at the Township Officers Association meeting and follows again:  My opponent has publicly stated that the office has not done a project in three years, only maintenance work.  Why something different now?
 
As for the claim about creating new work and costs, this is not about new taxes or assessments; it's about getting out and helping people.  I noted that I would be proactive in assisting local communities develop plans that address their individual infrastructure needs.  Creating plans does not generate a tax or assessment, but provides these communities with the tools they need to address their constituents and be more proactive with their budget process.
 
As the Deputy Public Works Commissioner, my opponent fully supported the concept of hiring a new employee in May, 2011.  In doing so, he played a part in misleading the entire County Board into thinking that there would be no cost to the County.  I'm sure if they were to look into it, they would find just the opposite. 
 
I'm sure there have been regular updates to the hardware in the office, however, my opponent failed to comment on my actual plans for the office which follow:  Files and plans will be digitized to clean up the office, minimize storage, and create immediate access from anywhere.   Landowners will have access to all of the necessary forms, ability to create and edit, as well as submit electronically.  Anyone who has visited the Public Works web page recently will know exactly what I'm talking about, this is not modern technology nor is it user friendly.
 
Review: What do you feel are the key challenges and responsibilities facing the Public Works Commissioner over the next Four years?
 
Rappley: Funding for infrastructure.  Funding is more challenging to obtain than it's been for a while.  Many of the local municipal projects we work on have one or more component of State or Federal Funds within them.  With budgets being tight all the way around its more important than ever to dot the I's and cross the T's when submitting for these funds.  Turnaround times have been shortened also.  Our office is open Mon to Fri and staff is on call 24/7 365 to assistant anyone in need.
 
Wendling: Trying to maintain the level of service that residents expect and deserve due to budget concerns and the  steady decline in revenues will be a the largest challenge.  I believe however that my proven leadership, experience dealing with this issue at the Road Commission, and willingness to try new concepts will allow the office to not only be successful in terms of projects and maintenance, but also provide some fresh ideas for the County as a whole.
 
Review: Add any comments on any topic not included or touched upon?
 
Wendling: My opponent is attempting to hang his hat on the fact that he has an engineering degree.  While I applaud him for his continued education, he is not a Professional Engineer, and it should be noted that this office has functioned for the last 35 years with someone other than an engineer at the helm.  According to the Association of County Drain Commission web site, not one of the States 83 Drain Commissioners is a Professional Engineer. 
 
Based on the responsibilities of the office as directed by the drain code and the fact that all of the engineering work of this office is hired out to private consultants, one could also argue that the position should be occupied by a professional Accountant, Surveyor, Attorney, Planner, or a Human Resource Specialist.
 
This office and the people of Saginaw County need someone who has knowledge and experience in all of these areas.  My 16 years with the Road Commission has afforded me a vast amount of experience in all of these areas and I look forward to the opportunity to work with the residents and all of the local units of government within Saginaw County.
 
Rappley: We in the Public Works Office know why we're here, and we know what to do.  We're here to serve our partners.  To serve homeowners, contractors and local municipalities as their needs arise.  We consider everyone we work with our partners and fully understand our job is to serve them. We have great working relationships with local contractors, engineers and municipalities.  We are fully committed to maintaining this high level of service into the future.  For more information visit keeprappley.com.
 
My opponent wants to hold the department to higher or different standards.  My office is open Monday thru Friday and staff are available 24/7 365 days a year.  We work at the same high level of standards that the people we successfully serve do.  We're on the job Monday thru Friday and Nights and Weekends too, unlike the Road Commission, which under my opponent's leadership is only open 4 days a week currently.  We don't need 4 day a week leadership at the Public Works Office.  It takes full time attention all of the time.  
Education is important.  Degrees speak for themselves.  But just as important are relationships, trust, and accountability.  The Public Works Office has the solid trust of the local units, has built positive  relationships within the community, and has a solid unblemished record of accountability.  None of this can be said for the Road Commission under my opponent's leadership.
 
Wendling: Again twisting words; I did not say I wanted to hold the office to a higher or different standard.  I simply stated that it should be held to the same standard as all of the other offices.  How is it that this office is out hiring people when everyone else is laying off?  Why has my opponent not followed up with his commitment to the appointment committee to combine duties within the office.
 
The Road Office is on a 4 day workweek schedule throughout the summer because it allows us to be more productive and efficient.  Contrary to my opponents comment, we like any other government agency, are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year whether we are on a 4 or 5-day work schedule.
 
“Trust, relationships, and accountability”;  buzz words that have a very broad and different meaning to many different people and really comes right down to an individual opinion.  I learned a long time ago that opinions are not something you debate.   

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