Superintendent of Public Works Robert ‘Bob’ Kowalik and the Village of Akron

Laurie Mercer

Spend time in this charming upstate village of about 3,000 residents, have a drink of water, flush a toilet, or even flick a light switch and you will in some way connect directly to the village’s department of public works. Ever since the 1800s Akron has been supplying the village with its own electric power at a competitive rate, delivering its own pure-tasting water from the village’s 100-acre plus reservoir, treating its sewage, as well as providing traditional highway work.

You could say that Bob Kowalik, superintendent, wears a lot of hats.

First the roads, Kowalik explains, “Only about 25 percent of our total budget is represented by highway work. It’s a small village, about two miles square, so everything is paved. Most of the village streets have been resurfaced. The majority of them have curbs. Before we re-do any road, we examine water lines and sewer lines to see if those lines need upgrading before road surfacing.”

“This year it’s mostly crack sealing the resurfacing. We try to do five or six village streets every year,” he said. “That way we are doing about a mile a year on a ten-year cycle.”

He said cost efficiencies come from “doing everything ourselves.”

He sometimes uses town of Newfield trucks and he finds all stone material at nearby quarries.

A crew of four — Richard Litfin, crew chief; Fred Bedford; Phil Kreher; and Chris Wargala maintain just over 27 lane miles in the village, including snow plowing. Roads maintained for Erie County account for about a third of those miles.

After 27 years of working for a large power company while building and maintaining high-voltage transmission lines, Kowalik has an extensive background in crisis management. Having a cool head in a crisis came in handy during the “October Surprise” storm of 2006. He explained, “It started to snow heavily with leaves still on the trees. By 4:30 in the afternoon we were beginning to get trouble calls.”

Branches hit power lines and the village began to grow darker due to small power outages. By 6 p.m. Bob was back at the office and on the phone to neighboring highway superintendents who were unaffected by the localized “Worst Storm in a Century.” He warned them that he expected he would need their help in the morning.

“We were set up for mutual aid, so I called other superintendents who were not getting the storm and said I was putting them on notice. Then things kept falling down,” he added. “I called Arcade, Bath, Bergen, Castile, Churchville, Fairport, Little Valley, Mayville, Salamanca, Spencerport, Springville, and Wellsville, and they all came in to help. Our #1 priority was clearing the streets and getting power restored.”

“The village had all of our power restored within two days,” he proudly said. “People in some neighboring villages didn’t have power for two to three weeks.”

One advantage for Akron was its abundance of heavy equipment designed for power lines in the town garage.

“We are a municipal electric company, so we simply took the loader out and got the crews in. I didn’t have to wait for anything.”

He said a call to the school opened up a nurse’s office with cots for lodging outside helpers. In addition, he put his own two kids, Adam, 19, and Eric, 16, in the basement and offered up their rooms to out-of-town workers. He and Diane, his wife, enjoyed having visitors at the supper table. Power was restored almost immediately to village restaurants to help sustain other volunteers.

“As it got later and everything was still falling down, it comes to a point where you recognize it’s dangerous to be out working, and you send everybody home to get some rest.”

“Another area of concern,” he said, “in addition to power, was that we have a major creek through the community called Murder Creek. So our focus was also damage control for the six bridges in town. Debris and logs were going to pile up and knock them out; we had to keep the debris clear.”

In spite of threatening creek waters, no homes in the village were flooded. Only Main Street Bridge is part of Bob’s official inventory.

“Disaster brings about the best and the worst in people,” he said. “People become demanding; they want it now. But the second they realize that our men are out there working 24 hours a day, they do a 180 degree turn in the other direction, and all of a sudden they want to help us instead of being critical.”

“One of the toughest things about doing this type of job is that you can’t go home and help your own family because the community of 3,000 people has to come first,” he said.

Transitions in Staffing

Bob Kowalik, a native son, accepted the position in Akron in 2001 following an early retirement from a large power company.

“I am responsible for water, sanitation, streets, and parks, and all electricity,” he said. “My Dad was in public works so I grew up with conversations about water breaks and road repair work at the dinner table when I was a kid. As a young man I also worked part-time reading village meters and helping to install water and sewer lines.”

But 27 years passed before he assumed the superintendent’s position, which is appointed by the mayor.

“The village came knocking at my door because of my background in electric power generation and operation. After saying ‘no’ two times, I said ‘yes,’ and I’m glad that I did. I enjoy it very much. One of the things that this job provides me that past careers haven’t is a chance to be involved if there’s something going on at school.”

Bob is a natural born coach who enjoys training young people in cross-country running and being an official at swim meets. After nearly 25 years, he returned to competitive running himself and now runs in about 20 5K races each year, often placing in the top 10 percent. On the job and on the track his philosophy is “work hard to run hard.”

He assumed his position at a time when several crew members were reaching their 30- to 35-year mark and retirement. In hiring new people for his staff of 14 full-time people, he is visibly enthusiastic about some new hires who bring exceptional experience to the job.

“We recently brought on a few people who have backgrounds in construction,” he said. “They liked the work, but they don’t like being laid off in the winter and working 20 hours a day all summer. They have a vast amount of experience already in putting in water and sewer lines, which raises the bar on our performance.”

For example, a relative new hire of just six months was recently cutting tree limbs with a chain saw in a bucket truck from high up in the tree. Bob said normally it might be four years before he was comfortable with a new person in that position in the trees. In this instance, however, the worker had a forestry degree and experience as a certified arborist.

The village contracts out garbage but does perform weekly curbside yard waste pickup, from spring to fall. The village composting site is popular with gardeners during Saturday mornings when they can come get compost and wood chips for mulch.

“This past year more than 300 people came to take advantage of it,” Bob said.

With computer savvy folks onboard, Bob also is advancing his department’s use of GIS and GPS for mapping and updating maps.

“With GPS we can go out and stand right on the exact location of a hydrant, valve, or the center of a manhole cover, whatever. We can get a lot of our old maps into electronic storage and updated to check infrastructure and asset management. The younger people who grew up with computers embrace it.”

Making Its Own Electric Power

Turn on a light switch in the village of Akron and its Bob’s team that lights the bulb. His electric team is Bryan Sugg, distribution crew chief; Dale Mecklenberg; Chuck Rebmann; Tom Whitbeck; and Brad Baer who carry on the tradition of supplying cost-effective electric power to residents and businesses.

Providing electricity represents half of Bob’s budget.

In the early 1900s as gas streetlights were converted to electricity, Akron supplied the village, residents and businesses with electricity, as well as turning on the street lights. As Bob noted, “Our forefathers 100 years ago had the foresight and got it going.”

From the 1800s the system grew in sophistication reaching regular milestones in service. For example, around 1919 a plant with the capacity to distribute 1500KVA was located on Mill Street and cost about $35,000. Another high point was 1949 when a new, modern outdoor electrical transformer substation and distribution equipment were installed.

In the past decade the current power substation was built on Eckerson Avenue. The plaque on the building reads, “David M. Barnes Sub-Station, A Public Power Community, Established 1849,” honoring the man who was instrumental in getting it built.

One major benefit of producing electric power in a town this size is that lower-cost electricity helps third- and fourth-generation companies grow and prosper. Schrock Metal Products, a growing business located just outside of the village limits, recently petitioned the town board to be included in the village grid system, and the board agreed. The village also sells water, at a slight premium, to other non-village residents who want the service.

“We are offering something that keeps businesses here, which helps with the tax base,” Bob said. Thanks to new growth and repair work, Bob said his department has replaced 230 electric poles in the past six years.

Akron is one of 42 communities that provides electricity to its customers. Because of contracts for hydropower, by way of Niagara Falls located about 25 miles away, people in Akron for the past 100 years have had less-expensive electric power. It’s no coincidence that businesses that have thrived here are often on their fourth generation of family-owned management. Example includes Perry’s Ice Cream, located right in the middle of a 2-square-mile village. Perry’s has grown from a small location on Pearl Street to a big plant on Cedar Street with 400 employees. Still family-owned, Perry’s has become a major regional ice cream manufacturer and distributor of food products throughout the state.

Just around the corner from Perry’s, another village manufacturer has a kind of timelessness about it. What could be sweeter than gumballs? Ford Gum, another long-time Akron business, sometimes smells like peppermint and employs about 100 people. There are other thriving small businesses with functions as diverse as the manufacture of overhead doors, imprinted rulers, and reconditioned golf carts.

The village even has its own bank—the Bank of Akron. And the town has an airport—the Akron Airport.

Akron’s focus is on a quaint central business district, grounded by a turn-of-the-century hotel with fine dining. Another tourist attraction is the famous Octagon House, a national landmark owned by Akron’s historical society. Residentially speaking, the houses range from modest to high-end without subdivisions, so they are mostly one of a kind. There has been a tremendous amount of restoration downtown. One benefactor, the Wilson Greybach Company has local roots and a successful history tied to creating the first life-saving heart pacemakers. Although no longer really rural in nature, there is a large agricultural facility — a large Arabian horse farm that sells its horses “all over the world,” according to Bob — situated along Route 93, the major access road into the village.

Although small and square in shape, the village is an ideal representation of how both business and residences can live in relatively harmonious balance. Both industries and houses occupy the major thoroughfares. At the village core is Russell Park, also part of Bob’s responsibility, where the themes of family and community are a regular part of many park celebrations.

Russell Park — The Heart of Akron

There are some trees in Russell Park, located at the epicenter of Akron, that are about 200 years old. For Bob and his crew, each tree is an asset that deserves their best care. Years ago the park was graced with a Victorian-style fountain. Today there is a well-used gazebo surrounded by benches made from paving stones. Lots of the bricks on the walkways represent donations and the names of friends and loved ones.

One of two under his supervision, Bob said of the park, “It was put in the founding fathers’ will that this land would become a park or else it would be willed to his next of kin.”

He said Friday night concerts in the gazebo take place all summer. The July 4th carnival and parade are annual events. During summer, every Thursday night they close down Main Street so automobile enthusiasts can drive around enjoying “Cruise Night.” At Christmas, they have a living Nativity in the park while the school marching band parades in with Santa.

Akron Falls County Park, the second park on Bob’s assignment sheet has a waterfall, dam and lake fed by Murder Creek, which passes through the park and village.

Bob’s staff and the residents endorse an aggressive tree planting program. For example, in response to the tree loss associated with the October Surprise storm, village of Akron electric customers were offered a one-tree rebate (50 percent of purchase price, not to exceed $75) for residents who qualify for the program. There are 12 recommended varieties on the preferred tree list.

In 2006, the village planted and maintained more than 40 new street trees.

Water, Water, Everywhere

The Akron Water System flows through Wyoming, Genesee and Erie Counties. The water plant itself is located in the town of Darien in Genesee County. The Akron reservoir is in the town of Bennington in Wyoming County.

But it’s the residents of the village of Akron who benefit from what Bob called “the best tasting water around.”

The village of Akron has owned its own 85-acre reservoir since 1927 when a cholera outbreak threatened residents with waterborne disease. Among the village trustees at that time was Eugene Forrestell, an engineer.

Bob explained, “They looked around, found an uphill area of streams, so they created a dam and built a water plant. All the water is gravity fed and very good tasting soft water in abundance.”

The village has the capacity to pump 1 million gallons a day, using natural gas wells on the property, to provide cost-effective power. On average, Bob said, they pump about 400,000 gallons per day.

The water plant, located near Darien, is nestled near the base of the dam and the headwaters of Murder Creek. Following treatment, the line flows 11 miles to the village, without pumps, using gravity. Mowing is maintained the entire length of the transmission line.

The 100-plus acres on the property also have provided a cash crop that is being harvested right now. Tall pines that were planted during the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930s are being logged and cleared to make more room for hard woods, including cherry, to mature. The profits from logging are funneled back into the water plant.

“When you are a small provider, it gets economically tougher to upgrade the plant while regulations get tougher,” said Bob. In the water department, Jon Cummings, distribution crew chief; John Asmus; Shaun Glass; and Carl Stockschlader keep things running smoothly, including the laboratory where water is constantly monitored for purity.

One big water project recently accomplished was the rebuilding of the concrete east spillway and wing wall at the reservoir. Bob’s crew also installed a new roof on the water plant filter room building.

“When we had the storm,” Bob said, “Erie County Water Authority lost pressure and had lines break, but we had water the entire time.”

Akron’s Sanitary Sewer

If you live in Akron, notices alerting you to a smoke test in your sanitary sewer system won’t surprise you, unless of course it shows up in your defective pipes or drains. As a precaution, the non-toxic smoke is blown into sewer mains to locate breaks and defects in the sewer system.

It stands to reason that any self-sufficient village that provides its own reservoir and water would also be responsible for treating sewage as well. In Akron, Bob Lucia, crew chief, and Doug Heiderman, part-time lab technician and water plant operator, are responsible for the water being discharged, after treatment, into Murder Creek.

Built in 1986, the village of Akron’s wastewater treatment plant represents a major upgrade with dual digesting capability and efficient operations, including testing.

The sewage treatment part of his business also is where Bob’s management skills are evident. His department has had to come down hard on citizens who were misusing the system in a variety of ways. It is Bob who has to speak directly to resident and business owners who are flushing the system with storm runoff and some pollutants.

“We have had to follow up on several violation notices to enforce illegal connections of sump pumps, floor drains and gutters, which were connected to the sanitary sewer,” he said. “We have also had ongoing issues with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency related to some abuse of the system by manufacturers. As the rules become more stringent, everybody has worked harder to meet the requirements.”

Bob’s round up on activity for 2006 in the wastewater treatment plant notes lots of replacement, cleaning out, relining, and rebuilding of sludge pumps, sewer mains, and filters that are the lifeblood of sanitary sewers.

Cost Savings and the Future of Akron

Akron, like all communities, is constantly striving to secure cost savings and to maintain its tax base. One idea is to combine village and town services. Financed by a grant, this idea is currently under study. Bob pointed to some obvious advantages and shortcomings, but candidly said, “I am interested in finding a new home to operate out of.”

The village of Akron’s DPW headquarters is an antiquated former garage. Dry wall buckets along the rooftop keep roofing materials from flying off. Although clean and tidy in appearance, this hardly looks like the headquarters of a department with a $4 million a year budget.

On the horizon also are two planned housing developments that will require an up-tick on the Department of Public Works’ services.

“The village is potentially going to grow about 20 percent soon due to two major developments that have been proposed for land now undeveloped and open within village limits.

“One development is 24 homes and the other is 110 homes. Ranging from high end to patio homes. That will mean more services and more roads to maintain,” he said.

Being in the trenches has its own challenges and its own rewards.

“When I hung up my hooks in the field and became a manager,” said Bob, “I realized it’s a very different job dealing with people than dealing with machines. Being a superintendent in a village as busy as ours, you can come home exhausted with more headaches than I ever imagined when I was in the field.” P

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