Ron Lacasse would like to know how someone managed to get an entire Big Wheel down into the sewer system.
“We have no idea how it got down there,” he told ELi with a chuckle in a recent interview. “You can’t just flush that down the toilet.”
An old city with a lot of young residents makes for interesting times for the folks who staff East Lansing’s Department of Public Works.
And, at the moment, Lacasse is the head of that team, the acting director. Scott House, the named director of DPW, is not due back from a two-year military assignment until July, and Nicole McPherson, who had been filling in for House, recently resigned to take another job.
The shifts putting him in charge left Lacasse necessarily scrambling to work up this coming year’s budget. He got it done along with his team and the help of folks in the city’s finance department, who are also operating with less than full staffing.
Lacasse certainly has the practical experience needed for trying to predict what this city will need in the coming years. He’s been an engineer with the City of East Lansing for almost 25 years. And it’s a job he has loved.
“I would say the best thing is the variety,” he said. “From someone calling about a yard-drainage issue to a large, complex sinkhole on Memorial Day Weekend, it’s never a dull moment. And you really kind of build relationships with certain people when you’re hit with a crisis like that…. It’s always nice to help people. If you can figure out why something’s gone wrong, how to help them fix it, or at least put them on the path, that’s pretty satisfying.”
Lacasse earned his degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan in 1995. After graduation, he worked for a few years as a consultant. He became a City of East Lansing employee in 1998.
For 14 years, Lacasse worked on the engineering side of East Lansing’s public works. That’s the side that handles infrastructure construction, big rehabilitation and substantial replacements. But for the last 11 years, he’s worked instead on operations – the side of DPW that handles day-to-day maintenance and services.
Having been on both sides, he knows how important it is for the designers and builders to listen to the people who will end up maintaining the infrastructure.
In practice, the operations team sometimes goes out to advise the designers, pointing out to them where their designs could make maintenance easier. It’s not enough to get a piece of equipment underground. You have to think about how someone is going to have to get a replacement part down to that equipment 10 or 20 years down the line.
“I think it’s a good partnership, actually,” he said of the teamwork between engineering and operations. “At the end of the day, you’re building something you have to maintain for 50 years.”
Lacasse and his team are aware of a whole subterranean municipal world that most residents never think about unless their road is dug up for a sewer project or flooded from a downpour.
“It’s quite amazing, the amount of stuff that’s underground,” Lacasse said.
One thing he loves about working the city’s operations system is the built-in unpredictability of municipal infrastructure.
“We can’t predict where a water main break is going to happen. Or when someone is going to flush five gallons of grease down the sewer,” he said of a situation that can lead to a giant clog. “People think we can predict and see everything, and we just can’t.”
Asked to name the most memorable infrastructure emergency, Lacasse talks about the sinkhole that appeared on Trowbridge Road just at the start of Memorial Day weekend five or six years ago. It involved a huge sewer line that is critically important, and it took some clever engineering to redirect the flow while the emergency fix was made.
In the hopes of knowing what’s where and what might fail and when, the city works hard on documenting its underground water lines and sewers, roadways and more. But in a city first settled in 1847 and incorporated in 1907, there are a lot of records missing or just plain wrong.
Sections built by developers decades ago may lack all original records. This is the case, for example, with parts of East Lansing east of Hagadorn Road, an area that used to be part of Meridian Township.
Nowadays, the city keeps its infrastructure atlas on a computer using a GIS (geographic information system). The city has one employee, Dena Fitzgerald, dedicated just to the GIS.
Still, “Sometimes you just have to scratch your head,” Lacasse said. “We find areas where our records and our atlas say one thing and you open up a manhole and there are either not enough pipes or too many pipes and you’ve got to figure out where they all go. It’s a constant cycle of updating that atlas.”
Sometimes city workers will find abandoned gas tanks and phone lines, undocumented water or sewer lines, and the like. They must then figure out where it comes from, whether it’s “live” and where it goes.
Residents don’t really tend to think about public works until something isn’t working. And the DPW team tries to keep everything working as best it can, given a quite limited staff and budget. Regular maintenance includes things the average person might never even realize needs to be done, like flushing the fire hydrants to make sure they are clear of sediment and working properly.
DPW has a device it can attach to the front of a vehicle to systematically turn valves on hydrants, to make sure they’re in good condition should the fire department need them. The machine measures the torque.
“If it takes too much torque,” Lacasse explained, “then you know something might be going haywire.”
But there’s so much more than hydrants. Catch basins and sewers have to be cleaned regularly. Downed and storm-damaged trees have to be managed for safety. Garbage and recycling has to be collected and processed, city buildings and vehicles maintained, and roads salted and plowed. Storm water and sewage has to be treated before it goes into the Red Cedar River.
And the park maintenance occurs out of DPW, too. The regular park maintenance staff for the entire city includes only 11 people, including the lead, “so it’s really a staff spread pretty thin,” Lacasse said.
What does Lacasse wish people understood about DPW’s work?
“I wish they could see the bigger picture,” he said, noting how challenging it can be to do all the things the city needs with limited vehicles and people.
Take, for example, the annual leaf pickup – a practice that appears to be fairly unique to East Lansing. The pick-up is important to keeping the storm sewers working and the river healthy. But the job requires a 12-person crew and the street department is down to only eight people. So, the leaf pick-up work must draw staff from Parks to get the work done.
The job has to be done before the snow starts falling because the same trucks used for the leaves are turned into snow plows. Yet it can be really hard to predict when the leaves and the snow will drop.
Sure, hiring more people and buying more vehicles could solve the problem. But “you don’t want the tax bill that’s going to come along with that,” Lacasse said.
“Do you really want me to buy another $300,000 truck that’s used for six weeks out of the year?” he asked rhetorically. “You can’t afford to do that….But you might be surprised how many times we’re told, ‘You clearly haven’t really thought this through,’ or some version of that. And we’re like, ‘Do you have any idea how much thought and how much planning’s gone into developing why we do things the way we do, and how we do it, when we do it, what equipment we buy to do it?’ There’s an incredible amount of effort that goes into trying to make it better.
“Sometimes you get the impression that people think you’re just winging it every year, and that’s a little discouraging because we do a lot of work trying that not to be the case,” he said. “That part gets exhausting.”
New mandates from the state – while understandable – can also get exhausting, especially when they come without funding. New storm water regulations and regulations about pipes carrying drinking water are examples of state rules that substantially add to the challenges and cost of operating the city’s infrastructure.
“All that stuff comes as a mandate with no extra funding – so to absorb that stuff, I’d like to say the city can just plug in more people,” he said. ”But that’s not the reality of it when there’s not more funding.”
Then there’s the fact that, compared to 20 years ago, it’s very easy for people to send in complaints. They often expect the fixes to be as easy for DPW to do as it is for them to email or text, and that’s not the case.
“Back when I started, there were no [cell] phones and engineering only had two computers,” Lacasse said. “So for someone to complain to you, they had to drive home, remember they hit a pothole, and call you” from a landline.
Now DPW staff are expected to keep up with emails, texts, phone calls, tweets, and posts on Facebook and Nextdoor.
“It’s almost impossible to get away from work,” Lacasse said. “But I think government is not unique in that regard.”
Once he hits his 25-year year work anniversary this July, Lacasse is expecting to look for a less intense job.
“City government is pretty hectic and the demands are pretty strenuous,” he said. ”So, I might shop for something that’s a little less impact, a little less public-facing.”
Aware that his name is effectively attached to the records of what he’s been doing, Lacasse said that nowadays, he worries people will ask in the future, “Why did Ron do this, back in the day?”
“I really try not to be one of those people they’ll be looking at 20 years down the road,” he said with a smile of the workers who will succeed him. “But you know it’s going to happen because no one is going to understand all the decisions you made.”
Kepler Domurat-Sousa contributed reporting to this article.