Government Success With a Little Pain
The Baker Park swinging bridge is an iconic symbol of a beloved public green space amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown Frederick.
Generations of Fredericktonians tell tales of crossing that little pedestrian bridge in all manner of ways, from the hand-in-hand stroll of lovers to the dangerous hand-over-hand crossing underneath the walkway prompted by boyhood dares.
For years, the bridge was closed, a victim of the ravages of age on wrought iron, wood and steel combined with the lack of discretionary revenue to make the necessary repairs.
It wasn't that past city leaders didn't want to fix it, it's just that the several hundred thousand dollar cost estimate in difficult budget years was just too high a mountain to climb. The political justification of that kind of expense was simply a "bridge too far” – budget-wise.
So, along comes Mayor Randy McClement, the former bagel king turned very competent public administrator. A notorious penny-pincher, this is the same mayor who cut out extra subscriptions to the local newspaper and tax-funded bottled water dispensers in city offices.
His logic on the water dispensers was that the city produces drinking water for its citizens; so, how then can they justify buying commercial bottled water for public sector employees. Similarly, his take on the newspaper subscriptions was that one or two newspapers per facility was more than sufficient.
Employees could share the paper with other departments, and with a subscription comes on-line access, too. Besides, should we really have a bunch of government workers reading the paper on the public's dime?
It was through this simple pragmatism filter that Mayor McClement decided the fate of the swinging bridge. Acting Public Works Superintendent Marc Stachowski proposed a unique solution; he would use his internal workforce, on a time-available basis, to restore the bridge. That way, instead of paying a contractor the exorbitant prices they estimated to fix the bridge, DPW workers who had downtime between jobs could fix it over time. It wasn't like there was some pressing need to get the bridge opened, as it had been closed for several years.
The secondary benefit was just as, if not more, important than the cost factor. By doing the research and de-constructing the bridge for repair, DPW workers could see how this marvel of engineering was put together, enabling much simpler and cost-effective future repairs.
So, that's the course they chose. For the next few years, DPW workers, already being paid to work for the city, would conduct Internet research into how to maintain a structure like the swinging bridge. As time permitted, they took component pieces apart, experimented with alternate materials, and welded, chipped and restrung the parts and sections back together.
All of this happened outside the view of most, save the people who live around Baker Park, the people who most missed having the bridge open to foot traffic.
So, why did what would otherwise be a celebrated, cost-controlled public works project evolve into a political controversy? We have a watchdog, maybe two, to thank for that.
First, a citizen retiree from a federal bureaucracy happened upon the final stages of the restoration. DPW workers were painting the bridge, and had jury-rigged a painting platform in Carroll Creek. The contraption involved a few large step ladders and a few planks, and spanned about 15 feet of the creek.
To be honest, it looked a little shaky. Photographed at just the right angle, catching the painters leaning out a little bit, anyone would conclude that this was a thrown-together operation.
Couple that with a career as a professional second-guesser who went around telling people how to do things to be fully compliant with regulations, and you have a problem.
The civic safety watchdog ran to the newspapers and spilled the beans. Dutifully, the paper dispatched a photographer to capture the Kodak moment, along with plenty of sky-is-falling quotes about placing workers in jeopardy.
As if that weren't enough, one of our county commissioners, the owner of a private sector utility company, found another excuse to employ his Yellow Pages argument.
The basis of the Yellow Pages argument is that if you can find a service in the business section of your phone book, then government shouldn't be doing it.
Full Disclosure Alert – The commissioner in question is Kirby Delauter. This writer really likes Kirby, and has a ton of respect for Kirby's family business. A north county employer for generations of utility workers, W.F. Delauter & Son is responsible for helping to build Frederick County as we know it.
Kirby came into office with the tsunami that swept Blaine Young into the top spot at Winchester Hall. Kirby, Blaine, Paul Smith and Billy Shreve all succeeded by joining forces and messages, capturing the imagination of the electorate on a promise to simplify, reduce and control the cost and size of government.
They've done what they said they would.
Attacking the swinging bridge as an example of a project government shouldn't be involved in is just a little short-sighted. It does make a good political slogan, though. This project is actually an example of the kind of project that we should be demanding from our governments, the efficient deployment of resources and talent to maximize our flexibility, responsiveness, and to reduce costs.
As far as the civic safety watchdog, maybe we can find a leash and a muzzle. If the nanny-state wants to get involved in matters like this, we're already sunk. While we could have doubled the cost to paint the bridge by bringing in a private sector bridge painter, who would have built-in the cost to erect a scaffold in his bid, they still could have had an accident. It happens every day.
At the end of the day, the swinging bridge is reopened. The cost to restore it was a fraction of what it could have been, and city workers now know how to repair the bridge more effectively in the future for having gone through this experience.
So, while it might violate the Yellow Pages theory and the strictest interpretation of worker safety regulations, it's a fantastic outcome and something the entire community can, and should, be proud.