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Norwalk DPW chief makes pitch for more hired help, omits detail

Council DPW meeting 008-20141206

Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord talks to Common Council members at a recent Public Works Committee meeting.

Correction: Near the end of the story, dates in a paragraph about CL&P were inadvertently reversed. CL&P paid more in taxes in 2014 than 2013.

NORWALK, Conn. – Public Works is hurting for help, Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said recently. One reason is a grievance filed by union members, although that’s not the way Alvord painted it to Common Council members.

Alvord said at the Dec. 2 Public Works Committee meeting that he’s asking for a permit engineer, an assistant civil engineer and a driver as new positions in the next operating budget. He went on to say that his department would be down three equipment operators by the end of the month, and there is a tool keeper vacancy. He said DPW would be living with those vacancies for some period of time because Personnel Director Emmet Hibson had said he couldn’t hire anyone who isn’t a city employee already.

Although Alvord said he didn’t know why, Hibson said this week that it’s because of a union grievance, something he has made clear to DPW.

Alvord said the equipment operators and tool keeper also plow snow.

DPW will also have a traffic maintenance supervisor vacancy and two laborer position vacancies, and Principal Engineer Dick Linnartz is retiring next spring.

“We don’t fill anything very quickly. In fact, on the equipment operators I don’t have any qualified in-house candidates and I can’t hire outside so we’re going to be living with these vacancies for some period of time, so getting a lot of work done is just going to be a real challenge,” Alvord said.

Jerry Petrini (R-District D) asked why employees couldn’t be hired from outside.

“I don’t know. The personnel director tells me that he can’t hire outside,” Alvord said.

“Even after you’ve exhausted everyone?” Michelle Maggio (R-District C) asked.

“By the contract we’re allowed to have a training and testing program to qualify people for the position,” Alvord said. “Each May we run a program. This past May we ran 10 through program, two qualified. Those have already been promoted. So I have two vacancies now that I don’t have anybody internally qualified for. By the contract I should be able to go out and hire from the outside but I can’t, the personnel director says he can’t. So I am sitting, either I go to train these people again to bring them up to qualification or whatever.”

Petrini suggested that Maggio bring it up at the next Personnel Committee meeting.

David McCarthy (R-District E) agreed. “Things are hard enough without being ridiculous,” he said.

The Personnel Committee does not meet often. It has met four times this year, the last time in September. December’s meeting has also been cancelled.

This week, Hibson answered an NoN email asking why Alvord cannot hire from outside. He said:

“The equipment operator position is part of Local 2405 bargaining unit. The contract requires that before a position is hired from the outside, it must be bid and internal qualified candidates must be offered the position. The contract allows there to be a training and evaluation process approved by the human resources director to determine if a candidate is qualified.

“Prior to my arrival Hal worked with Jim (Haselkamp) to develop a program. The program was administered in the spring and Hal promoted those candidates who ‘passed’ and asked for permission to seek outside candidates to fill the remaining positions. The union grieved the training and evaluation process and based on that grievance I informed Hal he could not hire outside candidates.

“I asked Hal to detail the training components of the process and based on his response I have asked him to take some steps to train additional internal candidates. Until I see steps taken and the candidates re-evaluated the Department will not be able to hire from the outside. This has been made clear to the Department so I would assume Hal would have explained that in his original response.”

Alvord also said on Dec. 2 that a permit engineer would pay for itself, as Yankee Gas would be able to get more infrastructure improvements done and would therefore pay more in property taxes to the city.

“They had meeting with the mayor about how difficult it is to get permits to do their capital replacement out there. They are correct. I have one permit inspector and I have one junior engineer diverted into permits full time because I need somebody doing the permitting full time. … If we can get more permits out to them they could get more work done,” Alvord said.

He said that he thought Yankee Gas paid $400,000 to $500,000 more in property taxes in 2014 than it did in 2013. “A permit engineer is $80,000, so $400,000 in additional property tax if in fact we can get permits out there, which we have a really hard time doing,” he said.

Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large)

Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) queries DPW Director Hal Alvord on Dec. 2.

Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said the tax department had a similar situation for years – an additional employee meant more revenue coming in.

“I think we should be able to do whatever we can, at least for this position,” Kimmel said. “We can’t play games here Hal, if we get the permit engineer but we still get the civil and the driver, this year, the permit engineer will still be free to do what a permit engineer is supposed to do?”

“I will probably still have to augment him at least part time with a junior engineer. There are more permits than one person can handle,” Alvord said.

Mayor Harry Rilling on Friday said that he didn’t know if DPW would get more employees next year.

“I have to look at it – how many they have, where their openings are, whether their openings are necessary or not,” he said. “This is a difficult budget year and we’re going to have to do everything we can to toe the line on taxes and make sure that we don’t spend money frivolously.”

40 comments

anon December 13, 2014 at 7:20 am

@Nancy, ‘Omits Detail’ yep. That the union with Mayor Rilling and his new hand-picked, union-backed personnel director are costing Norwalk money and value.

David McCarthy (R-District E) agreed. “Things are hard enough without being ridiculous,” he said.

Scott December 13, 2014 at 9:22 am

Mr. Alvord omits that the problems with the training procedure were purposely created by him to achieve the outcome he desires which isbhis m.o. on EVERYTHING. He spoon feeds you only what he wants and attempts to scare the public as with his snow plowing comment. I am a 17 plus year DPW employee and an equipment operator. I will truthfully answer any question anyone has about how we work day to day basis. The truth may shock you. There is no reason why laborers can’t be hired (they are entry level positions) and there are less senior qualified employees that can operate equipment. They fairness of the new training program for the senior employees is what is at question. Employees wait a LONG time for an opportunity at these positions and they deserve a fair chance before they are bypassed. We need to be patient and allow for the process to run its course.

John Hamlin December 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

It seems odd that no one seems to be able to explain this so that the taxpayers can understand the problem. It makes absolutely no sense — is it the Council’s issue (he’s taking it to the Council to address), the department head’s doing, the union’s fault, or is it even a problem? Without a simple, sensible explanation of the problem, no one would be inclined to do anything about it.

Piberman December 13, 2014 at 10:34 am

“…a difficult budget year…”. Let’s hope so in an election year. Stagnant property values, punitive property taxes, NAACP discrimination charges against the BOE, fears of a Ferguson incident, high municipal salaries and unexpected resignation of our best Supt. in decades. signal stormy weather ahead for Norwalk. All aboard for higher taxes next year.

Scott December 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

Mr.Hamlin I would be happy to clear up any confusion from the worker’s side. I don’t know budgets and departmental procedure but I give you facts – not speculation, not emotion. I am also not just an employee but a Norwalk lifer and home owner. These changes effect me as a homeowner far more than ss sn employee.

Taxpayer Fatigue December 13, 2014 at 10:59 am

It is a difficult budget year, particularly with the BOE already requesting almost a 3% increase, due the new union contracts that the current BOE just approved. Given that the school system is leaderless, we should freeze their budget until a new superintendent is on the job and has the time to put together a plan to move our school system forward and raise the mediocre test scores that are pulling down our property values.

Scott December 13, 2014 at 11:20 am

This article is about DPW not BOE. Mr. Alvord controls the second largest budget in the city and if he could he would control more. I think the residents should pay just as much attention as we do to the BOE.

Bruce Kimmel December 13, 2014 at 11:48 am

Not sure if I was clear, either in the meeting or on the tape, but the intent of my remarks to Mr. Alvord about not playing games was that if the Council and the BET decided to approve funds for the permit engineer, that the permit engineer would not be dragged in every direction doing other stuff to make up for perceived shortages in other areas. The city needs to shorten the time it takes for these permits to get approved; not doing so is costing taxpayers money. But we need a guarantee that the permit engineer will be allowed to do that job.

THE TRUTH December 13, 2014 at 11:55 am

The answer here is simple. Outsource DPW to a private sector non union company. The private sector always does it better and cheaper.
End of story.

Taxpayer Fatigue December 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm

The BOE budget for 14/15 is $166.4M, in second place is the Police at $20.7M, virtually tied for third is DPW at $18.4M and the Fire Dept. at $18.1M, then Parks and Rec at $4M and all other departments less than that. I support DPW’s request – at least we get something for the money – better infrastructure, more development – versus the endless vortex of BOE spending.

Scott December 13, 2014 at 12:03 pm

The private sector only has one priority and that is a profit margin. The employees they hire will be for a minimal wage so that is the quality and care you will get.

LWitherspoon December 13, 2014 at 12:16 pm

@Nancy

“Yankee Gas paid $400,000 to $500,000 more in property taxes in 2013 than it did in 2014.”

Why would Yankee Gas’s property taxes be lower in 2014 than they were in 2013? Has their property moved or lost value?

@Scott

You are closer to the situation than I am, but I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that without further detail I’m more inclined to take the word of Hal Alvord than the word of the DPW Union. The Union exists for one purpose – to benefit its members.

When Mayor Rilling dismissed Personnel Director James Haselkamp, many stated that it was because the municipal employee unions did not like Haselkamp. Haselkamp was promptly hired by another city, which is not something you’d expect if Haselkamp was as bad a Personnel Director as the Unions and Mayor Rilling claimed. Especially after all the negative press that Unions and even elected officials like David Watts created surrounding Haselkamp.

When Rilling announced the hiring of new Personnel Director Emmet Hibson, he proudly noted that Union leaders met with Hibson before the selection was announced to the public. I found that odd and troubling. Now that some time has passed, will NoN shine a light on what the new Personnel Director has done, if anything, differently from James Haselkamp? Has he worked hard to save money for taxpayers, or simply caved to every Union demand?

Mike Mushak December 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Scott, that would be a welcome angle for the story, perhaps from NON. I will not wade into the union issue here at all, but I want to say a couple of things.

My observations of the staff in the DPW office is that they are extremely overworked, to the point of running down the halls at times dealing with one crisis after another which is what happens when you are replacing centuries-old infrastructure, using multiple contractors who all have their own scheduling and equipment issues. I have been in meetings in the DPW office many times and seen this frenetic activity taking place.

On the Cedar St. renovation in our neighborhood of Golden Hill, which turned out remarkable well and has spurred the revival of our whole neighborhood after years of stagnation, we witnessed first hand the obstacles of working in an old city where utilities were not exactly where the old surveys said they were, and extreme weather like the worst winter we had in a generation last year delayed the project.

On the rebuilding of Taylor Ave, the issues of where new sidewalks go took weeks of comparing old surveys with zoning approvals, so that the new curb cuts adhered to a plan instead of willy nilly as they were all over the place with years of illegal curb removals that limited on street parking. Our neighborhood association helped the process along by taking the time talking to property owners directly to prepare them for the changes, but it indicated how much work a project like this involves.

There is no doubt that I have had my issues with DPW over the years, such as on Rowayton Ave (over-engineered and the walls are too big,, but its done and now needs to be the best it can be with punched up landscaping and traffic calming) and on Dry Hill Rd (one homeowner who I know personally was treated badly with his old cracked sidewalk not being replaced when the entire neighborhood around him was, based on dubious decisions that were made by the city) , but the fact remains that the DPW staffing levels in the office are clearly not high enough to deal with the amount of work going on.

In all of our decisions about staffing and the budgets of DPW and other departments, we need to weigh the true cost/benefit results of the initial increased costs. When you spend money on infrastructure by improving streetscapes like we did on Cedar, you increase property values and economic activity, including new and renovated buildings and new businesses and residents who are drawn to the area. Increased services means more folks will want to stay or move here. All of that has a positive economic impact that balances out the initial investment. The same argument can be made with our education system, and our stellar parks department.

What Mike Moccaie has done with the parks over the years has been nothing short of a miracle, considering his staffing levels and budgets, but he has also had to balance out the cuts with concentrating on creating new revenue streams which has been controversial at times. He has done a great job balancing these issues out, and our parks are now the envy of surrounding communities and across the state. With DPW, it is a lot harder to create revenue than it is with parks, as you do not have concentrated users except at the transfer station, but we all benefit from new streets and sidewalks and better services like snowplowing and repairs which leads to more investment and economic activity.

It’s a dilemma, as none of us want higher taxes in the short term. Of course all of this would be easier to discuss if we actually had real planning in Norwalk, which we don’t, as we don’t have a single professional certified planner in City Hall in a city of 85,000. We also have dysfunctional Planning Commission that ignores its Charter responsibilities to “coordinate and plan all physical, social, economic, and development in Norwalk.”

The Planning Commission, under Mike Green’s poor direction, do no real planning at all, and actually fight the concept as they are too lacking in skills and knowledge to even know what real planning is all about. Go to the American Planning Association website to see what real planners do https://www.planning.org/aboutplanning/whatisplanning.htm#2, none of which happens in Norwalk’s P and Z Department or on our embarrassing Planning Commission, who never even talk to the Zoning Commission as Mike Green has intentionally designed to maintain complete control over Norwalk’s broken system.

That is a shocking fact and one in which the solution is simple: cut the P and Z budget until radical changes can be made in our broken planning process, and give that money to other department heads that actually take their charter responsibilities seriously and give good value in return for our investment!

Have a nice weekend!

Paul Persius December 13, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Im really surprised someone has not picked op on what the new personnel director is doing with the unions. Do you know how many side grievances have been settled out of the arbitration process?? Ill bet over a dozen. I know of employees awarded thousands of dollars instead of going to winnable arbitration and other employees getting paid days back after they were suspended by supervisors for just cause. The DPW union is basically writing their own ticket. Don’t take my word for it, look at the grievance records, which should be public documents.

Scott December 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Mr. Persius the settlement paid that you refer to is a single case awarded to more than one affected person and a direct result of Mr. Alvord attempting to impose his will. It wasn’t ” thousands” of dollars. When divided among the effected employees it wouldn’t amount to more than a small mortgage payment. At least that’s what I’ve been told. As far as the just cause case many of the members of the local were surprised by the outcome. Unfortunately the union is obligated to represent all members or face litigation which has happened in the last 15 years. The system protected this individual and now everyone has to live public perception of us as a result. But I was not privileged to the details of this case. Obviously something was wrong because they won and they’re still employed.

THE TRUTH December 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm

The private sector always does does it cheaper and better. Its called the free market. The unions only purpose is to get as much as they can for thier members. A perfect example of the success of outsourcing is garbage pickup. It is being done for less and service is better.

Svetare December 13, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I have been with the D.P.W. for 10 years as a “Driver” (laborer too). I was trained for 2 days this past year on 3 “heavy equipment machines After the 2 days of training we were tested by an outside company. This guy tested us as if we were on the machines for a while. Is 2 days training enough time to test on a machine that is capable of tearing down a house?! I don’t think so. And as I can remember the training was always 40 hrs. per machine not 16 hrs. on 3 different heavy equipment machines!!!! There are plenty of guys employed by the D.P.W. capable of running machines.

I’m also a home owner in Norwalk as is my friend and UNION BROTHER “Scott”.

OhNoNorwalk December 13, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Scott thanks for the inside information on the DPW. I have some questions for you but not in the open forum. Thanks for your service to our City.

Piberman December 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm

It’s a welcome addition to have City DPW residents comment on City affairs. Looks like the “missing link” here is the Personnel Director. Maybe NON can bring him into the discussion for a balanced discussion by City managers.

anon December 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm

@the truth “The private sector always does does it cheaper and better. Its called the free market. The unions only purpose is to get as much as they can for their members. A perfect example of the success of outsourcing is garbage pickup. It is being done for less and service is better”. @Scott, living in dreamland.

Bill December 13, 2014 at 6:17 pm

The outsourced garbage service has been better than what we had and it saved us a million per year, win win. Why are we letting unions control our city, we are the taxpayers and they work for US!!!

OhNoNorwalk December 13, 2014 at 7:12 pm

If you guys want to Outsource then we outsource everyone. Police, Fire, Top paid managers, Politians. BOE, Everyone. Don’t just run your mouth on DPW. It’s about saving $ so we get it from every department. If your about that I am behind you 100%. Have some #%€£ and do it all the way. So start naming names and departments and don’t be so shy. That’s my plan. …

This comment was edited to remove a gratuitous hostile remark at the end.

Suzanne December 13, 2014 at 10:47 pm

If you outsource a government, aren’t you just creating a set of businesses whose only interest is in profit? How is this being of service to the taxpayer? Who controls the contracts, the adherence to them or noncompliance? Off the top of head, just asking.

WOW just WOW December 13, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Suzanne
All business are for profit. In the free market we get to pick what business gives us the best bang for the buck.

I think you may have answered your own question with this statement ” a set of businesses ” that we would get to choose from.
With the current system we are stuck with the overpaid underworked unions whose only interest is in profits for themselves .

Scott December 14, 2014 at 2:26 am

WjW if you consider us underworked it’s in no way the labor unions fault. Work is distributed by management and we complete every task we’re given. I’ll give you an example of the problem with the private sector where speed is the priority in order to maintain profit. I cleaned and inspected storm drains and pipes on a road scheduled for paving. I identified 3 catch basins and 1 pipe in need of repair – blocks rotted and falling out pipe seperated. The contractor slaps new tops on and paves the road without making the visually obvious repairs. Road is all paved quick and neat with beautiful new tops. Looks nice. The problem is that those structures are going to fail sooner rather than later creating a hole in the new road that the residents have waited 20 plus years to have paved. The contractor doesn’t care. They finished fast. It looks good. They made their money. As an employee and a resident I care. This is my home. This is my city. This is where I’m from. And I can only say that because of the wage I earn so I can stay here – and care.

WOW just WOW December 14, 2014 at 3:07 am

Scott
I have an example for you..
3 trucks
5 guys
1 guy working
This is what I observed on a catch basin repair the other day
If that is not waste what is. In the private sector if this happen they would be fired.

Here is another example of unions at work at a construction site.
2 police cars
2 officers (at overtime)
and no one directing traffic as both cops were sitting in their cars.

Paul Persius December 14, 2014 at 5:02 am

Scott, we are speaking of different grievances. From memory, the ones I mean are the employee who was suspended for fighting for 3 or 4 days, and the personnel director gave him the days back, without speaking to any supervisors. The other was a cash payment, to 1 employee, around 12K, for I think being passed over for a classification promotion. I think you are talking about the employee who was caught stealing on camera and is still working at DPW. This is what people mean when they say private sector is different. You steal from me and my business, you’re gone: no grievance, no personnel director, no arbitration, no progressive discipline, no retraining, no “you didn’t tell me I couldn’t steal”, etc.

I sort of agree with WOW, the DPW employees are not utilized correctly, as I too see many guys just standing or driving around. If DPW cant go into their garage until 3pm, and they finish a job at 11, guess what, they are “on the road” for 4 hours looking busy driving around.

Scott December 14, 2014 at 8:02 am

I remember the case you’re talking about now and it was under Mr. Haselkamp’s watch. The individual was licensed for the job and a senior employee (also a native Norwalker) and they chose to hire from the outside and out of town. I am not priveleged to the award amount so it may be as you say. As far as the five men on the mason job you I assume you only saw them for a moment. Once the hole is opened the tear down completed and the cement mixed the pace does slow down to set block – one man in the hole everyone else handing materials as needed. 5 is excessive. It can be done with 3 but then again the men don’t assign themselves – management does. The fighting suspension I can’t remember but if they did get their jobs back I believe in second chances. It does depend on the severity. And as far as the police are concerned it depends on the traffic pattern. Not every situation requires active traffic direction. Also the contractor pays for those officers not the city. Actually I was told, whether it’s true or not, that the city makes money on those assignments.

LWitherspoon December 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

@OhNoNorwalk

I believe that state laws regarding collective bargaining would prevent outsourcing everything, as you suggest. The BOE is in the process of replacing retiring custodians, some of whom are being paid between two and four times the market rate for custodial services. The only reason the BoE can do this is that they negotiated the right to outsource with the Union, and made a deal to the effect that there would be no staff reductions but custodians who leave can be replaced by contractors. Similarly, I believe refuse collection could only be outsourced because the City won the right to do so during arbitration. The Personnel Director at the time of these rare victories by the City was James Haselkamp, which may explain why Unions and their lackeys on council successfully led a campaign to have him fired by Mayor Rilling.

I do not understand why you feel that our only choices are to outsource everything or outsource nothing. It seems that a more prudent course would be to consider where outsourcing saves the most money, and then consider whether it is in the taxpayer’s interest to do so. At the very least, the city should do its utmost to win the right to outsource, as I would imagine this could help achieve a better outcome during negotiations.

John Hamlin December 14, 2014 at 9:35 am

The City should win the right to outsource and then outsource where it makes sense to do so — businesses outsource certain services all the time when it’s clear that a dedicated service provider can do it better and cheaper than the business. Don’t outsource everything — do it when it makes sense. But we also need to eliminate state requirements for collective bargaining for all public employees except police and firefighters. The Wisconsin way should be the future path for Connecticut — time to have government work for the taxpayers instead of taxpayers working for the government’s employees.

Scott December 14, 2014 at 9:41 am

The problem with Mr. Haselkamp wasn’t what he negotiated. It was how he negotiated. He was a bad used car salesman and a flim flam artist wrapped into one. The personnel director is not handing the unions the keys to the city. He is being honest and fair which is all any bargaining unit can ask for. No games just business. That is all that Mayor Tilling promised nothing more. And as far as Mr. Haselkamp being hired by Trumbull there is a small pool of people who are qualified for that job and he looks good on paper.

Scott December 14, 2014 at 11:41 am

Constructive debate and reliable information is what we all need to make an informed opinion. I know we all won’t always agree but we should know the facts

WOW just WOW December 15, 2014 at 2:59 am

Scott
I have no idea how long the DPW crew was at that site. However I can tell you this is not the first time I have seen a bunch of DPW workers standing around when only one is working.

Also as far as the police at construction sites and the fairy tale that contractors are paying for them has been debunked years ago.
The cost of the police at an overtime rate is figured in the bid/contract and then the taxpayer pays for that contact. So when all is said and done the taxpayer is paying for every penny of the police at construction sites. You say that every traffic pattern does not require a cop to be directing traffic. If that is the case we should not have a cop at the site at all. It is just an unacceptable waste paying someone 60 bucks an hour to sleep in a running city car. I am sure that you as a taxpayer would agree with this?

Scott December 15, 2014 at 5:59 am

Your point about the police is well taken. I can concede that. But your point about the crews standing around is a constant problem we face. We are out in the open naked for everyone to see. Every moment of every day is not occupied by constant frenetic movement. The job requires what the job requires. You make it sound as if NO work gets accomplished and we’re all along for a free ride. Maybe we do suffer from complacency from time to time and need to kick it back in gear but I think that happens to everyone. We are only human. But we don’t simply suck off the public teet until it’s dry. We perform a job. Has the service changed under Mr. Alvord and since the passing of Donald Scott? Yes. But that is just as much on management as labor. I will say one thing, this conversation has made me self reflect and realize that I need to kick it back into gear. I’ll try to set a better example for my coworker so that we can better serve this city that we are all a part of.

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