Although a public works department closely affects everyday life for everyone in a city, the work its employees perform can go largely unnoticed — unless the work doesn't get done.
Newberry Public Works Director Mac Bartley got his start with the city
working in fleet maintenance. Photo: City of Newberry.
Public works departments can go by different names, and the responsibilities of the departments can vary significantly from one city to another. These departments may pick up trash, mow grass at parks and ballfields, patch potholes, clear storm drains of debris, maintain sidewalks, haul away recycling and clear overgrowth in public rights of way. In coastal areas, public works staff may work on beach renourishment projects or help prepare an area for the approach of a hurricane. Workers pick up dropped tree limbs in a storm's aftermath, clean out ditches and make sure the grounds around city buildings are clean and attractive.
And the list goes on.
The director of public works is the point person responsible for overseeing those jobs' responsibilities. The director often sets the priorities, directs the workers, supervises the projects and takes many of the calls from residents.
For Eric Lutz, public works director for the City of Folly Beach, the opportunity to serve the public is one of his favorite parts of the job.
Lutz described a situation in Folly Beach where stormwater that should have been draining toward the marsh was instead pooling in the middle of a road. Working with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, his department received permission to put in a small drainage swale and add a culvert under the road to move the standing water.
"It took us less than a day, but to the lady who lived there, she felt like we saved her universe," Lutz said. "People on that street were amazed we could do something to make the water move, instead of flooding the street."
Other public works directors have similar stories that show how the tasks each department completes each day can truly make a difference in people's lives.
In the City of Union, a note from a health care provider is all that's needed to ensure trash collectors will retrieve cans from inside the yard of homebound or disabled residents.
"We'll come through your yard and get the trash for you. That's a service we offer. The main thing is taking care of the residents of Union, whether that's trash pickup, brush pickup, signage, street maintenance," said Kenny Thomas, director of Union's Public Services Department. "It gets a little hectic, but I love it."
Thomas worked in the department for 32 years before becoming its director in December 2018. That longevity is common in public works departments, where employees often learn all facets of the department and work their way up to supervisory roles.
Mac Bartley, director of public works for the City of Newberry, started in fleet maintenance in the city's garage in 1990. From there he went back to college and earned his degree in business before returning to the Public Works Department, where he worked a variety of jobs.
"I learned everything from the ground up," said Bartley, who became director in 2010.
The most important thing his department does? "Get the garbage picked up. That's the biggest thing of the day. Everything else falls in from there."
Bartley said he hasn't forgotten his days in the garage.
"I'm big on equipment. Equipment is one of the big things you have to have here. You also have to have good, trained operators. We have some of the best we've ever had. We've created three levels of heavy equipment operators, so everyone learns how to operate everything and they can fill in for each other."
"I love this town, I love being able to provide services to residents and I love my employees," Bartley says. "I love to see them be able to progress. Someone can start as a maintenance worker and then be running the equipment. I like seeing people progress and move up within the city and then stay here a long time."
Bartley, who grew up in Newberry, said being able to build strong relationships with other agencies, such as the SC Department of Transportation and CSX railroad company, has played an important role in his success in the department. For example, after he started as director, he worked with the railroad to clean out a drainage ditch that hadn't been touched since the 1960s.
"We fixed it so that water wasn't flooding out a neighborhood anymore," he said.
In Easley, where David Lappin is the public works director, the department will soon add a new responsibility to a list that already includes stormwater maintenance, solid waste and recycling. Easley's Public Works Department will be in the road paving business.
Easley's Public Works Department has added road paving to its list of responsibilities.
Photo: City of Easley
"We fixed potholes, but we didn't do paving. The county is now going to give us the money and we will start doing that ourselves. It's going to be a big change, but it will be good," Lappin said.
While most public works departments deal with trash, recycling and ground maintenance, some handle different responsibilities because of where they are located. Coastal areas, for example, often change their roles and routines depending on the season.
In Folly Beach, "we go from 2,600 residents to 30,000 in the summer, depending on the day. That's lots of cars, lots of traffic and lots of tourists," Lutz says. "But it also brings in lots of revenue."
As public works director, Lutz's job includes working on beach renourishment projects to keep the beach wide for visitors and locals.
"As soon as we're done putting sand on the beach, we're looking to the next one. I'm the liaison for the Army Corps of Engineers and the other agencies, the point of contact," he said.
"Like any coastal community, or almost any South Carolina community, every year we're dealing with storms," Lutz said. "We've had to shut down the island in storms. I head up the logistics side of things, working with the utilities director."
"I can't imagine doing anything else. I like the small municipal level of government. I like to be able to have an impact," Lutz said. "I love the fact that every day is exciting and different and I can come to work and truly make a difference every day of the week — and sometimes on the weekends, too. There's never a boring or calm day around here. I like that."