By: Eric Killelea
As Williston expands, the city’s public works department is hustling to meet demand for spacing, workers and improved infrastructure.
But with project completions expected in upcoming years, the department seems to be getting a better handle on the rapid growth.
In January, longtime director Monte Meiers retired. David Tuan has since stepped into the position, while Bob Hanson remains the city engineer.
The Williston City Commission has worked to financially accommodate the department, knowing its unique situation in the Bakken.
The local government raised its overall budget to $196 million in 2014. The city has borrowed money in the past, for infrastructure and personnel. And though the region is booming, the uptick in royalties and sales taxes is collected by the state not by Williston.
From its overall budget, the commission has been able to raise funds for the public works department, according to the city auditor’s office. Appropriated money would allow the department to operate some major utilities and complete infrastructure improvement projects.
The city approved $83.6 million for municipal highways and $31.05 million for sewer treatment and collection, including $28 million for the 2014 construction period of a new wastewater treatment plant, according to the auditor’s office. Other items include $9.1 million for water distribution, $6.2 million for streets, $2.3 million for water treatment, $3.04 million for landfill and $292,000 for cemetery needs.
At his office, Tuan, 30, said he was raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba and earned his B.S. degree in civil engineering from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He was also an engineering officer with the Fort Garry Horse Regiment of the Canadian Forces, involving himself in demolitions, construction and bridging efforts.
After graduation, he moved to Williston and took work at Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc. which has helped the city in several endeavors. Working at AE2S, he met Meiers and Hanson and developed a professional relationship with the two city employees.
“As soon as I met Monte, I met a mentor,” Tuan said, adding he joined the city 10 months ago after an engineering position opened. “Public services has always motivated me. The money amount never did.”
Since moving into the director position, Tuan oversees a department with 75 employees. He said several of them have worked for the city more than three decades.
“I rely on them heavily,” Tuan said, explaining that the role of the staff “is not directing development but trying to accommodate it.”
The largest department project is Phase I of its wastewater treatment plant, Tuan said. The $65 million project of Phase 1, of which the city has worked with consultant AE2S, is estimated to take more than three years to finalize. The plant, expected to be constructed off 135th Avenue Northwest, is planned to replace existing aerated lagoons.
Phase I of the three phase project is expected to start this summer, Tuan said. When completed, it will have the capability to accommodate 40,000 to 60,000 population equivalent and has been designed to be easily updated.
In the future, Phase II would expand the plant to contain 80,000 people and Phase III would hold more than 120,000 people, depending on future growth, Tuan said.
In the meantime, the departments works to fine-tune its maintenance, spacing and staffing needs.
Population has continually increased and the city has annexed accordingly. Increases in services have weighed heavily on the department. Staff has been instrumental in installing and maintaining the city capabilities such as sewer, water, road access, garbage collection and street lighting.
“The truck bypass has helped a lot, but the impact of roads are pretty severe,” Tuan said. In explaining, he said impacts are not necessarily limited to road surfaces as most damage concerns street lights and traffic signals as truck traffic continues to pass within city limits.
Though the public works department is split, it operated under the same roof. It has 65 total employees with 23 open positions.
Recruitment is difficult, especially for specialized positions.
An advertised city diesel mechanic position offers $65,000 while oil field companies pay higher wages estimated at $100,000 and more, Tuan said.
Administration office space and equipment storage space are also concerns.
The current building, located at 809 5th Street Northwest, stores loaders, blades, sand trucks, backhoes, street sweepers and forklifts, Tuan said. The city has reviewed options for expansion or building onto property to the east, but has yet to make final decisions.
Moving forward, the city will work with AES2 to present its financial needs to the state, Tuan said. It’s become important the state realizes the number of costly projects the city must endure, and how this in turn effects operational budgets, spacing and staffing issues.
Williston was served well by Meiers and Hanson, Tuan said. Today, the department isn’t responding as quickly as it should but given the demand, staff continue to meet all needs of the community.
“Although public works takes the brunt of all complaints, we’re here to ensure that your services are provided,” Tuan said. “We’re doing, in my opinion, a very good job.”