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Public Works to Create a Night Shift

DPW staff members, shown here when an Elm Street water main ruptured during a heavy snowstorm in January 2019, are concerned that the current condition of the department’s aging equipment will not allow an effective response to such simultaneous events. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel.
Faced with barely sufficient staffing and a city budget that some councilors think is excessively reliant on overtime, City Manager Bill Fraser has come up with a plan to test a split shift schedule for crews of the Department of Public Works (DPW). The schedule is designed to maintain street and infrastructure services while minimizing employee overtime. The new scheduling plan was announced during the final public hearing about the FY2025 budget on Jan. 24 at City Hall.

Affected DPW workers have voluntarily agreed to the schedule change, which will have six members of the crew work an 11:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. shift. Fraser explained that the strategy will have a crew on hand overnight rather than calling people in for overtime when storms or other events require an immediate response. Under this schedule, workers will no longer have 20- to 24-hour shifts, Fraser said, “The most anyone will be working is a 16-hour shift.”

Cutting Staff

In response to a question raised by resident Thomas Graham about DPW staff cuts, Fraser said the plan is not to layoff anyone but to postpone hiring for two vacant positions.

The city’s proposed $11.8 million budget, approved by the City Council in the wake of the costly damages of the July flood and combined with a substantial increase in the school district budget, is projected to impact property owners with a 12.5% increase in local taxes for FY2025. The sections of the budget taking the biggest proportional hits include DPW and the Parks Department.

DPW Staff Concerns

Two long-time DPW employees spoke to what the short staffing will mean for their jobs and the impact on city services residents are accustomed to receiving. Sydney Cushing, DPW water and sewage supervisor, said, “We’ve been operating short staffed for a number of years now — and we always pull it together and kind of make the magic happen, but it comes at a huge cost to other divisions down there.”

“For example, the water and sewer guys. It used to be that we were relief support for winter operations and now we’re just part of winter operations. They are very dependent on us and it’s causing an increase in overtime, an increase in our workload. It’s leading to a lot of burnout and added stress,” Cushing said.

Noting that the workers are willing to sacrifice for the city, Cushing said, “We all just do what it takes to keep us going. We are happy to do so, and we know you’re aware. But we don’t see a lot of sustainable plans for a change in the future.”

Pointing out the effects of delayed equipment purchases, Cushing said, “When I started at Montpelier, there was a lot of pride in the fact that we had the best staff and the best equipment available. We’re the capital. I’m still proud to work for the capital. I don’t want to see our current trend carried to the point where we’re no longer a leader in Vermont, but we become a follower.”

When Cushing began working for DPW nine years ago, the crew responded to multiple snow events and the trucks did not break down.

“Now there are three to five trucks in the garage broken down. That leads to winter maintenance borrowing water department trucks. We used to be able to make it through if there was a water leak during a major storm,” Cushing said. “Now it would be a major concern if those were simultaneous. The equipment isn’t there when it always was before.”

The department’s Eric Chase seconded Cushing’s concerns. “Equipment is a huge part of what we do and how we do it. We’ve gotten by very well for a number of years, but we need to be mindful of where we’re heading,” he said, noting that he wants to be certain DPW services, which keep roads open for police and fire departments, will be available.

Fraser and council members expressed their appreciation for the DPW workers. Fraser also noted that the Police Department staff has also agreed to new scheduling to reduce overtime and help make the budget work.