John A. Liszewski, Commissioner of Public Works, Chief of Operations, City of Yonkers

James Van Horn

As Commissioner of Public Works for the City of Yonkers, John Liszewski is responsible for the city’s roads and streets. And refuse collection. And water and sewer. And vehicle maintenance. As chief of operations, he oversees Parks, Recreation and Conservation; Engineering; Housing and Buildings, and the Office of General Services.

John’s bailiwick is a fairly compact city, 18.3 sq. mi. in size. (However, the city is almost all uphill and downhill, due to hills and the valleys formed by its three rivers. If it were flattened out it would be considerably larger.) While Yonkers appears to be a suburb of New York City, it’s actually the fourth largest city, population-wise, in New York State, at 196,000, behind the Big Apple, Buffalo and Rochester but ahead of Albany and Syracuse. Its fiscal 2003 budget is $650 million.

Yonkers is more than 350 years old. The first European settlers were the Dutch in the 1630s. The land that is now the city was originally granted to Adrian van der Donck by the Dutch West India Co. The Dutch referred to van der Donck as “de Jonkheer” (Yonk-hair), or “the young lord,” so his land grant became known as “de Jonkheers,” the young lord’s, shortened to Yonkers. Van der Donck, incidentally, was the first lawyer in what is now New York, but obviously not the last. He also built the first sawmill in the American colonies, at the junction of the Hudson and Nepperhan rivers in Yonkers.

Yonkers officially became a village in 1800s and a city in 1872. The city is the birthplace of Otis Elevator, founded in the 1850s.

The 1960s and the 1970s were not kind to Yonkers, as, along with other older cities in the Northeast, it suffered from a deteriorating infrastructure exacerbated by the departure of major employers. The tax base shrunk as the need for public expenditures increased. This situation improved slightly in the 1980s but … well, let John Liszewski describe it.

“When I came to head the public works department 10 years ago, the phones were ringing off the hook in here. You couldn’t hear yourself think. And they weren’t compliments — they were complaints and problems from citizens. They were frustrated in dealing with public works people and called my office directly.

“At that time there were 900 street lights out.” Yonkers was the first American city to have street lighting, in 1851, and John makes its sound almost as if a couple of them were still left.

“There was a major lack of organization and planning. There was no policy and procedure manual, no job descriptions, no drug and alcohol testing program, and we had major issues with the unions. Litter was everywhere, as well as graffiti and illegal dumping.”

In addition to attacking the immediate problems, John began to practically reinvent the public works function.

“This was a step-by-step process. I knew municipal budgeting, but how did it apply to public works in Yonkers? I had to learn about the department, how it worked. Before, I worked primarily with numbers. Now this job is working with people, getting to know them, their jobs. So I went out in the field, to see how the department people actually worked. I met with the men when they started their shift, then went out with them.”

John characterizes himself as a “professional municipal administrator,” and that’s the path he took to being commissioner. Originally he was a schoolteacher — he taught business and mathematics — and then a controller for a manufacturing company. He started with the City of Yonkers 16 years ago in management and budget, then went to the police department as a civilian administrator — manager of Planning and then fiscal manager.

Next he transferred to the Department of Public Works (DPW) as deputy commissioner and subsequently was named commissioner, the youngest ever to hold the job in Yonkers. (Neither job was filled when he came to the DPW.) “I’ve held the job since1993, serving under both Democratic and Republican mayors.”

John’s direct responsibilities as DPW Commissioner include city maintenance (including streets and roads), refuse collection, water and sewer, and all vehicle maintenance.

There are 300 full-time crew and staff in the public works area. Deputy commissioners under John are Edward Courtney and Michael Ruggiero. There are eight department managers: Ken Murphy, Jerry Olita, Pete Capobianco, Craig Kossin, Cameron Cunningham, Bob Woska, Catherine Danaher, and Marianne Wyatt-Dolan; the superintendent of Water is John Speight. Approximately 50 people work part-time on special projects. Total annual operating budget is more than $34 million; CHIPS allocation is $1.14 million. The DPW has nine physical locations in the city.

With this many responsibilities, John keeps “contractor’s hours,” starting his day around 7 a.m. with inspections and tours of parts of the city, before heading into the office to start the “official” day at 8:30 a.m. He usually knocks off at 6-6:30 p.m.

Then, of course, there are the evening public government meetings and meetings with community groups. (He serves on the Westchester County Association of Municipal Public Works, The Westchester County Bronx River Advisory Committee, and the Westchester Refuse Disposal District Advisory Board.) And, since some of his departments operate around the clock, and because problems can occur any time, he’s never far away.

But growing up in Yonkers and spending most of his adult life there, the city’s in John’s blood. (He and his wife, Kathy, have three children: John, 24; Allison Correira, 23, and Katie, 19.)

For hobbies, John laughed, “I run for mayor.” In fact, buoyed by his success as DPW Commissioner, John ran in the most recent Democratic primary for mayor. (City laws limit the mayor to two terms in office, and incumbent mayor John Spencer’s were up.) He didn’t come in first, but made a strong showing for a first-timer.

In his terms as commissioner, John has divided the DPW into four main areas: City Maintenance, much of which is roads and streets; Refuse Collection and Disposal; Water and Sewer, and Vehicle Maintenance.

City Maintenance

Yonkers is bisected by one Interstate, I-87 (the New York Thruway), and criss-crossed by the Saw Mill River, Sprain Brook and Cross County parkways. Public transportation includes Metro North rail and a network of bus routes.

There are 360 road miles in Yonkers under John’s jurisdiction, including state and county roads the city maintains, particularly for snow and ice removal. The city has 70 bridges, for which John’s group handles snow and ice removal only.

There has been almost no new road construction in recent years, so road construction involves preventive maintenance, repaving and rehabilitation when necessary (heavy work is contracted out). Fortunately, John noted, most of the street repair work is maintenance, to avoid major problems.

When it comes to winter operations, Yonkers is more fortunate than its upstate counterparts — “There have been winters where there has been not very much snow at all,” he noted. On the other hand, Yonkers was hit hard last winter, like the rest of the Northeast.

The city uses 37 trucks converted to snow units, 25 large ones and 12 smaller ones, plowing and spreading salt/sand at the same time to save time. (The city can store 10,000 to 15,000 tons of salt/sand under cover but there isn’t room for more.) There are 20 major plowing routes, one for each of the larger trucks with five spares; John said it takes 2.5 hours to complete a plowing route. (If it’s still snowing, of course, trucks make a second or third pass). In addition, the 12 smaller trucks handle the smaller streets and dead ends.

Yonkers is not off the hook with winter, however, as John explained.

There are two main problem areas:

1. Topography. Many of the streets are narrow, winding and hilly. There’s a definite lack of off-street parking, a liability not only for street sweeping but snow removal. But the real problems, said John, are the 459 dead-ends. Usually the smaller plows clear them, but they may have to be supplemented with front-end loaders and 25-cu.-yd. snow removal trucks. Cars parked in the dead-ends, off the designated snow removal routes, can further complicate the problem.

2. Equipment. The salt/sand spreader units on the trucks wear out from rust and corrosion.

“This happens whether we use them frequently or infrequently,” John said. “The truck engines and chassis will last a long time, but the spreader hopper bodies needed frequent replacement.” To solve this problem Yonkers has gone to all-stainless-steel bodies. “These cost about $7,000 to $8,000 per truck, but by extending the life of the spreader bodies we expect to more than recoup the higher initial price.”

After paving and snow removal, the third, and perhaps greatest, part of City Maintenance is keeping the city clean. As mentioned, dirt, litter and graffiti were major problems when John took over and are still a threat. John said that initially the DPW got the problems under control and then, under Mayor John Spencer, initiated a Quality of Life initiative, taking a proactive approach.

In 2002 the DPW devoted 123,000 work hours to various programs aimed at keeping the city clean. Spearheading the effort are the 15 street sweeping workers and eight sweepers assigned to 13 routes throughout the city.

“Our objective is to sweep the downtown every night, and the rest of the city twice a week, working shifts seven days a week,” John said. He added that this effort can be complicated not only by rain and snow, but by the lack of off-street parking in numerous areas, even though alternate side of the street parking is in effect. And, “We keep this effort up even in the fall and spring, our most active periods for leaf and brush collection.”

Other components of the mayor’s quality of life campaign are:

• The mayor’s task force of seven workers running one shift seven days a week keeps the main routes into and out of the city clean as well as problem areas as they occur.

• Graffiti: There is the equivalent of one person full-time cleaning graffiti, which includes not only spray-painted “tags” but illegal advertising signs on telephone and other utility poles. John said, “When graffiti goes up, we obliterate or remove it within 24 hours. This is a disincentive to graffiti ‘artists’ who can’t glory in the presence of their work for more than a few hours.”

Rich Fedor, head of the graffiti removal crew, added, “When graffiti is removed in an expeditious manner, it crushes the morale of the ‘authors.’ Posters of illegal signs don’t get their money’s worth and soon stop their efforts.”

• Rangers and Pride-in-Work: The city hires as many as 44 part-time Rangers, usually senior citizens, at $10/hour for four hours, cleaning sidewalks and gutters in high-pedestrian areas, particularly in the downtown of the southwest quadrant of the city. They are supervised by Arthur Masterson. Five to eight people in the Pride in Work workfare program, supervised by Bob Solieri, attack litter problems city-wide.

• Litter basket crew: Four city workers empty more than 300 litter baskets throughout the city, on a full-time basis.

• Vacant lot cleaning: Up to 25 city workers are assigned to the full-time job of cleaning weeds and debris from city-owned lots and areas, as well as areas requested by the city Housing and Buildings department. The city “owns” numerous vacant lots, usually due to non-payment of taxes, where the structures were removed due to fire or deterioration. They attract litter like magnets collect iron.

Complicating John’s job a little bit more is the disparity in the city itself. “The southwest quadrant of the city is an older urban environment where we are concerned with keeping the streets and sidewalks clean and free of litter. Much of the rest of the city is suburban, and in some areas of the east and northeast there are million dollar homes. Here the emphasis is on removing leaves and brush.”

Refuse Collection

One of John’s major accomplishments has been upgrading the refuse collection and disposal process. The city collects refuse for disposal through the county system. Regular trash pickup is twice a week; recyclables, once a week, alternating between paper/cardboard and commingles (cans and bottles).

“When I came in, the recycling effort was primitive,” John noted. “There was one yard where people could leave anything that could be recycled. Frankly, it was little better than a dump.

“We upgraded our efforts, culminating in opening a $1.8-million recycling center on one of the main avenues, where residents can drop off recycling materials. Now we recycle over 30 percent of the waste stream.” There also is non-metal bulk pick-up once a week; metal bulk items are picked up by appointment.

The new Organic Yard offers both residents and landscapers a drop-off point for leaves, brush and tree stumps. The city screens the materials to produce both topsoil and rock, which can be used for fill or even riprap on the waterfront.

Another advance in refuse collection is “Free-On-Fridays.” Every Friday, by appointment, crews will pick up old refrigerators and air conditioners and remove the freon, or chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant free of charge. Because of CFCs damaging effects on the earth’s ozone layer they have been banned since 1995.

Also, the Refuse Collection department has instituted numerous small changes. For example, refuse collection crews now wear uniforms and make an effort to stand up empty garbage cans and put lids back on.

“It’s the little things like this that make a difference on how people perceive the quality of life in this city,” John said.

Also making a difference is his departments’ workers taking the proactive approach, going above and beyond their regular duties. For example, one crew rebuilt the island in a cul-de-sac so snowplows could get in. Another time a member of the refuse collection crew came back to complete the pickup in a dead-end when an oversize vehicle blocked the truck from getting in. “We have numerous letters from citizens complimenting our people for their extra efforts,” John noted.

Water and Sewer

Yonkers’ aging water supply and sewer systems, both of which have some lines more than 100 years old, have the potential to be real problems due to deterioration.

The city gets its water, 10.7 billion gallons last year, from the New York City reservoir systems. Yonkers disinfects and fluoridates incoming water and recently started adding caustic soda and orthophosphate to combat lead. In the older parts of the city, private connections from the city mains may be lead pipe, or lead may be used in the solder to hold joints together. Caustic soda makes the water slightly harder so less lead dissolves, while orthophosphate reacts chemically to form a protective coating inside the pipe, sealing out the lead.

On the potable water side, Yonkers also is replacing a 30-in. main and has started cleaning and cementing liners on 17,000 ft. of smaller mains. Both jobs are contracted out.

The department replaces fire hydrants, some of which are 100 years old, on both emergency and scheduled programs. “We have over 6,000 fire hydrants,” John said. “We replace the oldest ones usually neighborhood by neighborhood.

“After water department crews put in new pipes and a hydrant, a street crew follows with an asphalt hotmix seal over the connection, using a Pro Patch unit mounted on a truck and a small roller. It takes the crew less than 10 minutes to complete a hotmix patch over a hydrant connection.”

The wastewater treatment plant is the county’s, but Yonkers maintains more than 400 mi. of combined storm and sanitary sewers. There are 11,500 catch basins and manholes, which are usually cleaned and/or replaced at the rate of 20 percent per year.

Vehicle Maintenance

John has responsibility for more than 1,000 vehicles. There are 453 in the public works area; Parks, General Services and other areas have more than 100.

In addition, his people maintain police and fire vehicles and equipment. The public works vehicle fleet includes the refuse collection/snow removal trucks, principally Mack and White/GMC, of various vintages; backhoes and wheel loaders; street sweepers; pavers and other mobile equipment, and the ubiquitous pickup trucks.

John said he’d like to see a 10-year replacement cycle for vehicles, but it isn’t always possible to attain this mark, especially with autos and light trucks, and even more with police cars.

He has streamlined the spare parts process. “Because we buy equipment every year on a bid basis, we have many different makes. So we were sourcing and carrying a spare and replacement parts inventory from 50 different vendors.

“To reduce workhours and paperwork we are now outsourcing parts inventory, on a bid basis. So we purchase according to our needs and deal with only one vendor, a third-party service provider.”

Results

The first two things John pointed to that have resulted from his 10 years in office are audio/visual.

It’s been quiet in his office; the phone outside has only rung twice in the past hour. “This means our people are taking care of the problems and citizens don’t have to call me,” he said. While it may be negative and unscientific, “We can measure progress by how many complaints we are not getting. When I compare when I first came in, with the barrage of complaints, and now, when most are taken care of and don’t reach this far, I can see a real improvement.”

His office does get the occasional compliment, John said, but it’s the nature of public works that you really hear from citizens when something goes wrong.

And, the streets are bright at night. “We replace a broken or burned out street light within 24 hours after receiving a report,” he said.

John pointed to some real indications that things are looking up for the city in general. Last year, $100 million construction permits were issued. There are at least two dozen public and private development projects under way, spearheaded by the major redevelopment of the city’s riverfront.

To enhance the economic climate, the city is looking to develop many small units and partnerships, rather than seeking one or two major employers. By refurbishing and renovating a number of old but stable buildings in the southwest corner, near the train station, landlords hope to attract tenants fed up with the high rents of New York City. (Yonkers is less than 30 minutes from midtown.)

And he’s still enthusiastic about his work, even after 10 years. John thrives on the diversity of the job — “doing something different every day.” Unfortunately, the flip side of that is, “We can’t solve everyone’s problems.”

As far as his best day on the job, John said it was when Pope John Paul II came to Yonkers. The worst, when two city employees were killed and one injured in accidents.

As far as John’s future plans for his department, “We want to continue our partnership with the community, to enhance the quality of life for all residents of Yonkers and to continue our proactive approach.

“After 10 years of being commissioner, I feel that things are going like a well-oiled machine.” P

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