Q&A With Hal Adkins, Public Works Staff In Full Summer Preparation Mode With Renewed Focus On Trash Collection

Q&A With Hal Adkins, Public Works Staff In Full Summer Preparation Mode With Renewed Focus On Trash Collection
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OCEAN CITY — For the last 32 years, Hal Adkins has worked hard to ensure that you don’t have to say his name or know that he’s there.

As the Director of Public Works, Adkins believes if you aren’t thinking about the things he spends all his professional time thinking about, whether it’s water or wastewater, beach cleaning or trash pickup, he’s doing a good job.

Adkins sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk about just how busy things have been behind that proverbial curtain and detailed how the town can pull off the seemingly unbelievable feat of swelling from a small town to a massive metropolis in the summer months.

Q: Last week the council decided, on your recommendation, to increase the parking fees at the Inlet parking lot and that money will be used to fund future projects, whether its infrastructure or various other things the town needs to do. Talk about why now was the time to ask the council to do that in your mind.

A: When you look at the level of service that we wish to provide to our residents and our visitors, there are certain levels of cleanliness and infrastructure that we wish to achieve. We wish to provide a cleaner Boardwalk than we did in the last few years. We wish to provide a greater level of cleanliness on the beach itself, and we wish to provide a greater level of traffic management within the Inlet so people aren’t waiting for an hour in line waiting to get out. That all comes at a cost, and we have to balance what our fee structure is versus what our necessary expenditures while trying to keep those expenditures at a minimum.

In doing so, we had to look at the rates in what we were charging for our inlet lot and our CALE meters on our side streets. If you were to take time and compare that to many other municipalities of this size in the summer months, even at $3 an hour in the inlet lot, it’s extremely attractive compared to a lot in downtown USA, per se, that is $10 an hour. That was the purpose behind it: to reinvest those revenues and a service level to meet the expectations of those visiting.

Q: What are the realistic gains from this change, and how will you use those gains?

A: Well, number one, we are doubling the crew on the Boardwalk in the evenings that are dumping barrels. We have decided to split it into zones, so we will have one crew that’s operating from the Inlet to Fourth Street, which is a very heavy trash load in the evening hours. We’ll have another crew that will be handling 4th to 27th streets, which is a much larger geographic area in an effort to avoid the ‘snow cone’ effect in the trash barrels. On the beach itself, last summer, we were averaging around 400-500 trash barrels on the beach. We are actually increasing that to more than 800 barrels on the beach this summer.

There are two tangible results that I hope people will see, but in addition to that, we want to provide additional levels of supervision in the inlet parking lot. During the congested evenings when people try to leave at the same time, or during a rain event, we need to try and get them out of there in a realistic manner. Humans like to get in line, and when they see a line, they think that is the line so they line up when there are three other booths there that don’t have lines. So, you need someone there of authority in a vest to direct traffic and that comes at a cost.

Q: What does the town needs to address on its priority list in regards to projects?

A: I can tell you one project that is directly related to the Inlet lot and the fee structure even though it didn’t come up in the presentation: if you look at the size of the Inlet lot, and you observe the condition of the surface, it’s not going to be too many years before we need to at least overlay that entire parking lot. Most people have no idea, based on current unit pricing, with a current paving contract, if I were to click my fingers this evening and pave that entire lot this evening, its $500,000 just to do the one part of it. Additionally, what may not have come out in the presentation is any revenues that we are able to generate from these fee adjustments that can be directed to such improvements as I just discussed, will allow other dollars to be committed elsewhere in town to infrastructure instead of cleaning the beach and the Boardwalk.

One of the biggest infrastructure issues that we are facing in the coming years is our street paving and our storm drainage system. Next month, I’ll have been in this position for 32 years, and I was here when we initially put in a large amount of the storm drain system and the life expectancy of that piping system is between 25 and 27 years, so we have to replace it and that comes at a cost.

Q: One of the other theories about this fee increase has to do with the fact that in the past few years, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of visitors who come to town just for the day during the summer months, or the daytrippers as they are often called. Does this fee increase, in a way, enable day-trippers to contribute to the cleanliness and the infrastructure of the town?

A: Personally, I think it does. All you have to do is step back and look at what I like to call ‘the fish bowl looking in.’ If you look at the development that is occurring in the West Ocean City corridor, and you look at the growth of the micro hotels that are being built out there and look at the growth of Ocean Pines or the Berlin area. None of which is meant in a negative way, so don’t take it that way, but it’s a reality. You are getting a larger number of individuals who are taking up residence outside the corporate limits but are choosing to visit Ocean City to contribute to the town on a daily basis. And yes, it does allow them to contribute a realistic amount to maintain the cleanliness of what they are enjoying.

Q: I know this time of year is always a bit crazy for you, as the stacks of papers on your desk can often be measured in feet rather than inches. Tell me about what you and your department are tackling and trying to finish before Memorial Day?

A: I would say that we are having a record year as far as the amount of work that we have underway right now. Here’s a sampling: No. 1, as you are coming into the downtown of Ocean City, you are seeing a water tower growing out of the ground. That’s a one million gallon elevated storage tank that’s going to be a beach ball. The minute it is completed later this fall we will be removing the water tower on Worcester Street to allow for the parking lot to be expanded, and we are removing the one at 15th Street for eventual expansion of the fire department should they decide to do so. In addition, we’ve got about $3 million in paving and storm drainage work going on, and we are completely rebuilding a neighborhood known as ‘Little Salisbury’ on the bayside between 87th and 94th streets. We are actually in there paving right now, and should be done with that project in about two weeks. It has taken two years to complete. We are also doing some bayside streets in the vicinity of St. Louis Avenue near 15th Street.

Within my own complex, we’ll call it the back of the house that citizens don’t usually see, we’ve got a $5 million wastewater clarifier under construction at our wastewater treatment plant. We’ve got a number of water main upgrades that we’ve done throughout town, and we are working hand in hand with the State Highway Administration on resurfacing.

Q: In the 32 years that you have been here, talk about how the infrastructure and the things that happen behind the curtain or beneath the surface (water, wastewater, etc) have evolved and enabled the town to grow and swell annually in the way that it does.

A: The finest example is to talk to you about employment. DPW (Department of Public Works) as a whole, we have roughly 178 full-time employees. As a matter of fact, we are still operating a full-time staffing equal to FY1987 and of course we are now in FY2017. But, we balloon to over 500 employees in the Public Works Department in the summer season to support the 300,000 visitors (each week). A great example of the evolution I’ve witnessed in my career, the best example is the transportation department. When I started, the transportation department consisted of 13 buses. We called them Thomas Mighty Mites, you know short school buses, 28 footers. We now have over 60 pieces of equipment, most of which are 40-foot buses, we just acquired our first two articulating buses which are 65 feet in length. We now hire about 180 bus drivers, whereas the full-time compliment of bus drivers is nine. Again, nine versus 180.

Let’s stop there and talk about water and wastewater. Let’s say in the winter we were processing wastewater a million or two gallons per day. Well, the reality of it is, we need to have an infrastructure that is sized for our peak summer months. So, we have a 14 MGD wastewater treatment plant: 14 million gallons per day. We have a collection system that will support that, we have pump stations that support that, and we have to have the maintenance and manpower that will support that. Similar numbers in the water department and aviation numbers are the same way. Again, silent behind the scenes issues that most people would never think about.

I’ve said to my staff and I’ve said to others: ‘you flush the toilet and it goes away. You turn on the tap and the water comes out. You get up in the morning and you go to the beach and the beach is clean. You go to the Boardwalk in the evening and it’s clean. You put your trashcan out at six in the morning and it’s magically emptied.’ If all of that goes well, you don’t think about me, and that’s fine with me. I’ve done my job.

Q: So, for 32 years you just like being behind the curtain?

A: Yeah, I like being behind the curtain and I’ve got an unbelievable group of men and women behind the curtain with me. We have one hell of a baseball team if you want to call it that and I take pride in each and every one of them.

Q: Politically speaking, or even from a tourist perspective, the desire is always to welcome more visitors and grow our community in that respect. So, from an infrastructure standpoint, what can we really handle as far as growth?

A: The way I want to answer that question is focus in on water and wastewater. The last thing I would ever want to see in this town is a building moratorium. Typically, a building moratorium would come about from a lack of capacity. So, one of the number one items on my mind every day is maintaining a sufficient capacity. Second, is the reliability of the system through appropriate maintenance, and third is a certain level of realistic redundancy. So, if I had a well or two wells go down on me in peak season, I would still have a sufficient number of wells to provide adequate water capacity. The same goes for wastewater. To answer you relative to what this town could hold capacity wise, I would say personally that it would be limited eventually by the roadway system and not water and wastewater.

Q: What you have brought to the table over 32 years is going to be very hard to replace, and we’ve recently seen a number of town officials like you who have been here for many years decide to retire. How much more gas do you have left in the tank to do this job?

A: I only have two speeds: dead in the water or full throttle, foot to the floor. That’s me and I’ve always been that way. I envision that I’ll be that way till at least 65 or 67. So, I’ve got another 12-14 years in the tank, but I am going to be reaching a crossroad and some decision making in 20 months. At that point, I will have reached the eligibility under the town’s system that affects me. Bryan, whether I ride out my career for another 10 or 12 years with the town or whether I turn the page and see what the next chapter of my life has for a different career path, I will be honest with you, I am thinking about that. I’m looking at the alternatives. I figure, when I have about one year left, I will start making the tough decisions. I will tell you, I thoroughly love the job I have.

For the last 32 years, I rush to work because I love it that much. The other thing is, you are correct, as far as the town in concerned, there is a bit of a ‘brain-drain’ going on, meaning the loss of institutional knowledge in this town because there are many other Hal Adkins’s out there who are eligible to retire and could retire at the drop of a hat. There’s a lot of knowledge that’s about to disappear in the next few years, but I can only hope that the other individuals in other departments can say the same to what I’m about to tell you. One of my biggest achievements will be the day I decide to walk out behind the curtain and out the door, a citizen will call a few months later that I’ve dealt with before, and they will be surprised to learn that I’m not here anymore, and that there has been a seamless transition. Things will go on without Hal Adkins behind the curtain. If I can achieve that, it will be one of my biggest accomplishments in my entire career, and that’s a goal.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.