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A Q&A with Mill Creek Public Works Director

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Mike Todd, Mill Creek Public Works Director

MILL CREEK, August 2, 2022 – Despite COVID, and other challenges, the Mill Creek Public Works Department had a busy year in 2021 with much more in the works through 2022.

Lynnwood Times Reporter Kienan Briscoe sat down with Mill Creek Public Works Director Mike Todd to discuss some of the accomplishments, of his department over the last couple years and notable current and future projects. Below are his responses in their entirety.

What are the top four biggest accomplishments of the Mill Creek Public Works Department for the last year [or so]?

At the top of the list is the purchase of new equipment that allowed our Public Works team to self-perform numerous tasks, resulting in better outcomes due to cost savings and increased pride in their work. As Mill Creek’s infrastructure ages, we find ourselves needing to deal with old pavement, sidewalks, stormwater pipes, etc., more often. So, we are moving towards not contracting out or bundling jobs to fit into annual or biennial programs but instead equipping our staff to make many of the changes ourselves; this way, we can better control the timing and the quality of the work. An excellent example is the recent repair of a sinkhole on 3rd Dr. SE, which utilized all of our new equipment. (See photos attached) Additionally, the City acquired new equipment for other common tasks that we could not perform well due to old or unreliable equipment. The best example is the purchase of two snowplows. When the state stepped back from plowing the highways, it placed the responsibility on the City. At the time, we only had one small plow best suited for parking lots. To better prepare for winter storms, we invested in two new plows, one small and one medium, and added additional storage for deicer and our sand and salt mixture. 

On the capital project side, while it may not show on the surface, we are making good progress on rehabilitating our aging stormwater infrastructure. In 2018, the City identified several points of failure and general degradation. So, we have been executing a program to replace the most urgent matters since 2019 and now have annual programs to take care of the next level of issues. We’re doing that with an innovative technique to line the pipes in place instead of digging them up, which is less disruptive to traffic and the general public and often saves money.

As part of the complete Street Initiative, we were able to use some grant funding to fill in several missing pedestrian facilities. Most notably, we added a crosswalk on 136th St. between the football and baseball fields at Jackson High School. We also added some pedestrian enhancements and crosswalks close to the Mill Creek Sports Park, connections that had been missing for many years. We will continue to work on identifying the missing links for pedestrians and upgrade those as we have time and funding.

Significant projects (planning, design, construction, etc.)

We are in the design process for a rehabilitation project at Silver Crest Park 13621 28th Dr SE. Primarily, this project will replace the uneven and cracked basketball court but will also improve some pathways, add new park furniture, and replace the failing fences, giving this park a long-needed facelift. We are fortunate to have some county and state money to help with this project.

We are in the design phase for the next batch of storm water pipe repairs for 2022.

Currently, we are working on crack sealing, minor pavement repairs, and replacing the raised pavement markers (“turtles”) that were disturbed by snowplows. Later this year, we will be planning projects for 2023 and beyond based on a survey (completed in 2021) of all paving needs within the city. In addition, staff will be talking to City Council about an overall pavement preservation program during the budget cycle this fall.

How are some ways COVID impacted the Department, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn that you aim to implement on future projects?

Throughout COVID, our Public Works Maintenance Staff has continued to be in the field. The grass didn’t stop growing, and the other maintenance tasks didn’t go away. So we persevered by masking in close quarters, single-person vehicle use, and other accommodations. Public Works also helped retrofit City facilities with plastic shields for workspaces in high-traffic areas such as Passport Services, Police Department, and City Council Chambers. Also, the City completed upgrades to the air handling equipment and filtration for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems (HVAC).

In early 2020, most desk-oriented staff took laptops home and worked virtually. Starting in the fall of 2020, employees began returning to the office workplace. However, City Hall doors remain locked to control the numbers in our lobbies for the safety of our community and staff. Most interactions are by appointment, or in the case of Passport Services, there is a walk-up option. We have learned many new skills, including using Zoom, which helped the Mill Creek City Council become one of the first to make Council meetings virtual. We anticipate the hybrid model used today is one that we will use for the foreseeable future. 

Mill Creek was fortunate that our building permit process and the associated inspection functions were already entirely digital before COVID hit. Many cities struggled to implement new strategies to accept drawings and make changes to systems to communicate with developers and homeowners about projects. We didn’t have to do that because we were prepared with an all-digital platform before COVID came along.

Other challenges/setbacks? How did you overcome it?

Not unique to Mill Creek, when COVID first hit, there was a pause when everyone thought projects might slow down. But after just a few weeks, projects continued to roll along. The difficulties we faced with our projects in 2020-21 were primarily supply-chain issues, and we still have those. It’s hard to believe that more than two years later, we are still seeing the effects of various material shortages caused by manufacturers who had to slow down based on their supply chains. One example is the material used to line our stormwater pipes for our 2021 stormwater pipe rehabilitation project. It took a very long time to acquire, so much of the work was delayed instead of being completed last August when the weather was dry. Our vendor’s price was locked in by contract, so it didn’t cost the City more, but project delays complicated the workload for staff. That is an impact that is hard to predict and hard to quantify, but it’s very real. Simple projects like replacing the raised pavement markers in our roadways also took longer. We had to wait for back-ordered materials and then found ourselves in line to rent the equipment that everyone else was using.

Any successful funding ventures? Any future or current?

Just this past legislative session, the State Legislature awarded the City funding for two important projects that would have otherwise tapped city funds. First, we received about $200,000 for a Public Engagement and Planning Process regarding the vacant parcels the City owns by the Mill Creek Sports Park. We also received about $200,000 to use for a necessary floor replacement at the Mill Creek Library, and allow the library to upgrade restrooms, the heating system, and other items at this popular and well used facility.

What have been the top three priorities of the Mill Creek Public Works Department this year?

Staffing. With the boom in construction for transportation and other municipal projects in the greater Seattle area, every municipality is looking for project engineers, including Mill Creek. So, the limit to our ability to take on projects is not so much funding as it is the peoplepower to work with consultants to develop the designs, initiate contracts, and then manage the construction. We are also actively recruiting a replacement for our Planning and Development Services Manager, Tom Rogers, who retired in March after 30 years of service to the City of Mill Creek.

Systems. Again, as the City matures and we welcome new staff in all areas, we find that transferring institutional knowledge is a significant task. So, we are working diligently on documenting policies and procedures to ensure that we are all working efficiently and effectively, and ensuring our standard plans comply with the latest regulatory requirements 

Prioritization. We are finding way to balance immediate near-term needs versus long-term planning for the future. Extra tasks and uncertainties through COVID have made it challenging to keep up with everyday maintenance, but we also need to be planning for our future, both for the next biennium budget and throughout the next 10 to 20 years. Finding time to do the planning but still be responsive to customers is always a challenge, so we’re working on systems and processes to make that easier for us to satisfy both ends of the spectrum.

What do you think the resiliency of Mill Creek’s Public Works Department, dealing with supply costs, extreme weather, COVID, etc., says about the Department at large?

We are very lean, and that is indeed a challenge. For example, many of our sister cities operate water and sewer departments on top of maintaining roads, parks, and facilities as we do. So, they have a larger public works staff by a factor of two or more than ours. That is efficient and cost-effective for us during regular times, but when emergencies like major snowstorms arise, our small staff can struggle during 24/7 operations. Similarly, there were some tense moments during COVID where some of our crew had to stay home in quarantine, and we were running with only a couple of people for 4.9 square miles of issues. 

I am grateful that we have some very hard-working dedicated staff who have been fantastic during the disruptions from COVID and other extraordinary circumstances.

On the funding front, we have saved money by self-performing various jobs like repairing potholes instead of contracting those out, so we are doing okay in terms of budget. However, the costs of materials and labor on contracts are a concern going forward. I know most cities are concerned about construction costs rising in the next year or two, and I would agree. That may be a big challenge, but Mill Creek is in a good financial position.

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