By Mike Murphy
Special to The Review
Hamtramck recently hired a new Director of Public Works, Mark Ragsdale. He comes from Brownstown Township and has been on the job for just a few weeks. Let’s find out more about him.
Could you give us some information on your background?
Ragsdale: 23 years experience in public service, graduate of Michigan Public Service Institute, BS from Central Michigan University in Community Development with the area of concentration in Public Administration, Master of Science Administration with the area of concentration of Public Administration from Central Michigan University, S1 water distribution license through the Department of Environmental Quality.
What are the duties of the Director of Public Services?
Ragsdale: These are a few of the Director’s duties: plan, coordinate, and evaluation of all work performed by department employees, City street administrator for Act- 51 accruement, budget implementation and management, collaborate with City Administrator on execution of City goals, advise City Council on issues concerning public works, over sees contractors providing services to the city such as: sanitation, street and park maintenance, tree trimming and removal, snow removal, and salting of roads, water and sewer repairs, responsible for meeting Department of Environmental Quality requirements, building maintenance, coordinating capital improvement projects with City Engineers.
What are your initial impressions of Hamtramck?
Ragsdale: Hamtramck is a very eclectic city which was once a thriving community. The city has fallen on hard times, partially due to some severe mismanagement over the years.
I think Hamtramck’s biggest assets are its employees and residents. Hopefully, Hamtramck has left its darkest days behind it. Sometimes darkness is necessary.
If you take a kernel of corn and drop it on the ground nothing will happen. But when you bury it in darkness the shell dies off and produces a new plant that bursts through the ground producing beautiful and abundant fruit. This can be looked at as a wonderful opportunity to start over.
What do you plan to focus on first?
Ragsdale: Restoring the Department’s Integrity! First and foremost, getting the issue with the water bills straightened out. I would like to take this opportunity to clear the air on the matter.
Until I was hired a month ago the department had run for months without a fulltime Director or Water Supervisor. Earlier this year, Rodney Johnson was hired on a part-time basis to fullfill a state mandated requirement, by the DEQ for an S-1 water distribution license. He handled all requirements and compliances by the state.
In April of this year the Water billing cycle was changed from quarterly to monthly. The reason for this was too many renters were running the water bills up thousands of dollars then leaving.
The money would then get transferred to the tax roll. Many times the tax bill would not be paid and homes would go into foreclosure. This would result in the City losing thousands of dollars in revenue. Billing monthly allows the City to keep a better eye on the amount owed.
Over the summer the Director and the Water Supervisor left the department, leaving Rodney as the interim director. The Water Supervisor was the only one that knew the water billing system, so this job was left for Rodney to do. During this period some residents did not receive water bills for three months.
This explains why some people are getting water bills two weeks apart. They are catching up on the ones that weren’t paid. Many residents are looking at the bill date and not the billing period that they are being billed for. Rodney was unfamiliar with the software program, so through the learning process there were some errors made, some human, some by the default settings on the computer, and some with the radio equipment.
For example, some people had $12,000 water bills that should have been $120; this was due to a multiplier on the default setting that was set at 1 which should have been .01. To correct these issues we had the manufacture of the software come in and train all employees in the office. The accounts that needed adjusting have been adjusted and we are moving forward.
Since then Rodney has gone from a part time employee to a contractual employee. This will explain the many complaints that he is never there, on the contrary, Rodney works late hours and weekends. I am very thankful for the work he has put into getting this situation figured out.
I understand the frustration of the residents, but the way the employees have been treated during this time is ridiculous. We have had people come to the counter screaming and yelling and calling the ladies liars and crooks — using profanity.
This kind of behavior will not be tolerated. The ladies at the counter will treat the residents with respect and professionalism, and I expect the same from the residents.
The word got out that some of the water bills are messed up and automatically some people think their bill is screwed up because they have a high bill. The department has the technology to track daily water usage, in some cases, down to the hour.
This lets us know if the water is being used or not. This technology can be used to diagnose leaks. If a resident has an issue with the bill, our office will be glad to check it out for them. We will help educate the resident on how to read there bill, what the normal usage should be, and water conservation tips. If need be, we will go out to the residents home, as a courtesy, to check for leaks.
What are the most important challenges the city is immediately facing?
Ragsdale: The lack of manpower, resources and decent vehicles needed to provide decent services to the residents. As a result the City is at the mercy of contractors to provide services.
Do you have a particular plan for Hamtramck that you will implement over the next several years?
Ragsdale: Work with the City Manager and City Council to slowly rebuild the department one employee and one piece of equipment at a time. By doing this we will be able to offer more services, better response times, at a lower cost, and improve the infrastructure. We have a big sewer project coming up that will help eliminate flooding, like the City saw in August of this year.
What would you like to accomplish in Hamtramck in five years time?
Ragsdale: I would like for the department to plow and salt the roads, fill the potholes, shovel the sidewalks and mow the parks to make them look pristine. Improve the City’s sewer system, replace some bad sections of water main, and update old fire hydrants.
What is the most controversial project you have dealt with or most controversial project you are faced with?
Ragsdale: Water shut-offs — the issue is very controversial. It’s not any easy thing to do. Our employees do not enjoy doing this, but unfortunately it is our job.
One of the reasons Hamtramck has experienced financial distress is due to residents not paying their water bills. Water is now billed monthly, so shut-offs will now be done monthly as well. This will prevent the astronomical water bills that the City gets stuck with.
More governments currently need to do more with less, which seems to be impossible proposition. Is this the case in Hamtramck and what can you do in that situation?
Ragsdale: More with less is definitely the trend in most local governments. Usually you find a lot of cities sharing services. However, these cities have not went through emergency management (like Hamtramck), not once but twice.
The department has been cut so much at this point, it is not the concept of more with less, it’s a lot more with a little more. Meaning if I could get a little more people and equipment I could get a lot more done.
How would you describe your approach to management?
Ragsdale: I practice transformational leadership. I believe in empowering the employee. An employee is something you build up, not tear down. The employees in my department are some of the hardest working employees I’ve seen in my 23-year career.
These people have taken it on the chin with cuts to their wages, pension, and health care. Yet they still come in to work and give 110%. That being said, there is a severe lack of consistency and standard operating procedures, which we are collectively working on.
There is an anagram that we use for customer service: S.T.E.E.R. It is our goal to provide the citizens service that is Safe, Timely, Effective, Efficient and Resident oriented.
How can the residents get in touch with you?
Ragsdale: (313) 876-7700 extension 312, or firstname.lastname@example.org