OCEAN CITY – Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins judges the job that his department is doing by silence, as in the more the better.
If one would compare Ocean City to the wonderful Land of Oz, then Adkins’ job is to make sure that everything is running smoothly behind the curtain and beneath the proverbial yellow brick road, as he and his staff, which makes up 40 percent of the town’s workforce, manages pretty much every service and amenity that residents and visitors take for granted everyday.
Adkins says that for the last 25 years, he knows that the minute that something goes wrong, people will call to complain, so he knows that the lack of response means that the job is getting done.
“We certainly aren’t in this for ‘attaboys’,” said Adkins. “We are the cogs in the wheel that make this thing go around and most of the time it’s not glitter and glory, but we are here to keep the machine running.”
Underneath Adkins’ public works “umbrella” lies everything from general maintenance to the Ocean City Airport wastewater to the bus system, and he oversees the operation of the rapidly moving parts in the Ocean City machine with not only great efficiency, but in the instances where he comes before the Mayor and City Council, he also articulates his points and needs better than most in the town of Ocean City because of his knowledge.
“In the world of public works, and specifically in Ocean City, we are rarely seen or heard from,” said Adkins. “As long as when you turn on your knob and water comes out, or flush your toilet and the water goes away, then we are doing our job. If when you go to the beach in the morning and all the trash has magically disappeared, and you ride down the road and not hit any potholes, and the bus comes on time, that’s what we do.”
More than 200 employees work in public works and overseeing the gigantic operation that is located behind the police station on 65th Street earns Adkins the second highest salary in town. City Manager Dennis Dare, to whom Adkins reports, is first.
Adkins, however, is quick to praise his colleagues and fellow co-workers, most notably veteran Maintenance Superintendent Bruce Gibbs, who will be retiring in October.
“Gibbs’ crew is working on all cylinders right now”, said Adkins. “I liken it to his house is this whole island, as in 4.4 square miles of yard that needs to be cleaned everyday.”
Adkins said that every day the public works department removes six to seven pickup trucks full of broken beach chairs alone that are left on the beach. The town also gathers five to seven tractor-trailer truckloads of trash around the island. That trash is then hauled by an outsourced company to a waste-to-energy facility in Chester, Pa., which is a new venture that will save the town more than a half million dollars annually in tipping fees.
“Unfortunately, when you leave the beach everyday, you see what people are leaving behind, and it’s more than just their footprints,” said Adkins, “but when you come back the next morning it’s clean again, and that’s the job of Bruce Gibbs and his crew.”
Adkins contests that his group is merely comprised of problem solvers who try to ensure the “silent expectations” that visitors and residents require in their everyday life. However, providing all those amenities is a grandiose process, from the vast network of pipes beneath roads to the size of the town, which seems to be growing by the season.
Adkins is actually the only public works director the town has ever had in technical terms as he took the post in 1986 and absorbed all the different departments under one roof to improve efficiency upon the request of then-City Manager Tony Barrett.
In 1994, his duties became even more expansive, as the Mayor and City Council along with the Worcester County Commissioners abolished a quasi-governmental organization called the Worcester County Sanitary Commission. Essentially, this move split the sanitation responsibilities between the town and the county.
“Since then, everything on the ‘sandbar’ became my jurisdiction, and not a lot of people realize this, but we still accept all the sewer flows from West Ocean City via a line that runs under the bay and comes onto the island at 15th street,” said Adkins.
Adkins often speaks of a “line in the sand that he won’t cross into the political realm” when he addresses the Mayor and Council, and recently he’s been led closer to that line as decisions made in the past year have not only halted capital projects that would keep the proverbial machine running smoothly, but also instilled a hiring freeze that leaves Adkins alone short 20 positions.
“Personally, I wish there was no ban at all and my boss [City Manager Dennis Dare] knows that,” said Adkins, “but I know what we are up against as far as budget goes, but I realize the political body in Ocean City needs a balanced budget and they would probably take a lot of criticism for spending millions of dollars in projects. However, I’m not talking about projects that are frivolous, I’m talking about core infrastructure things that we need.”
Adkins noted that there is basically no money left to do roadway paving, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since the 1980’s, and there are signs that some asbestos piping that has been beneath the streets in Ocean City since the 1960s is starting to fail slowly and surely.
“We’ve got to stay on top of these things, or literally, they will be crumbling down all around us,” said Adkins.
Dare was quoted during the budget cutting process as saying that “visitors of Ocean City are not and should not be concerned with the town’s fiscal crisis”, alluding to the “silent expectations” of clean beaches, streets and workable amenities.
One could argue those things that address and maintain those “silent expectations” in other areas that don’t welcome millions of tourists to the area each year, could more feasibly have their infrastructure projects put off. However, in an area that much of its allure is based on cleanliness, and reliable services, perhaps halting those projects is more risky than some are acknowledging.
“The longer you postpone projects, the greater degradation that will be incurred and the price to do the job will potentially be quadrupled but that’s my job, to be a problem solver and try to keep things running as smoothly as possible,” Adkins said.