New public works director embraces expansive job

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Susie Turner is Kalispell's new Public Works director. Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 in Kalispell, Montana.

Susie Turner is quickly settling into her new job as director of Kalispell’s public works department. An environmental engineer who has been working in the department since 2005, she decided to apply for the position after former director Bill Shaw departed in May.

“I was weighing the pros and cons of whether I wanted to jump in, if I felt I was ready to perform the job and supply the support I think the whole public works network needs,” Turner said. “I decided I could, so I went for it.”

Having served as interim director after Shaw’s departure, Turner was appointed to the position in mid-June. “I know the directors, the policies, how the city runs. So that probably gave me a bit of an advantage,” she said.

AFTER  growing up in Libby, Turner went off to get her engineering degree from Montana Tech in Butte. She spent six years working for King County, Washington’s road maintenance department before she and her husband moved back to Northwest Montana to be closer to family and raise their three boys.

Turner started working for Kalispell as an assistant civil engineer, hired mainly to oversee its stormwater management program. Over the years she took on more and more responsibilities in the department and in June 2011 she was made the city’s water resources manager.

TURNER saw a quick start in her new position, taking the helm of public works and its 70-plus staff in the midst of 2012-13 budget talks. “There was a huge learning curve,” she said of the experience.

During budget talks, Kalispell City Council members looking for possible savings in the city’s largest budget component — at $20 million — among other things asked Turner to justify requests for a new articulated boom truck and more funding to replace aging water meters nearing the end of their 10-year life cycle.

Both requests made it through the preliminary budget process. So did one of Turner’s own requests: $72,476 to implement a utility asset management program. The initiative aims to replace the existing paper system used to track Kalispell’s water and sewer infrastructure with a digital program.

“Right now we do a lot of paper-trail tracking and it’s very difficult to find out what the sewer crew cleaned six months ago ... So we need a better way to track what we do,” Turner said. “As a smaller city we could keep track of things with a paper trail. But as we grew it was just time to get in a better management tool.”

The program will overlay a map of the entire systems with various attributes of pipes, valves and other components: Their condition, when they were last worked on, what was done, the cost and  a map of breaks.

“It’s in the budget and if it goes through, it’ll probably take us almost a full year to implement,” Turner said of the initiative.

It should help officials prioritize where work needs done. That includes parts of Kalispell with older sewer lines that suffer inflow and infiltration problems, taking on rain and ground water.

Tightening wastewater treatment standards for nutrients will be tough for the city to meet, even with its recently upgraded plant. A new permit variance by the state lets Montana cities discharge up to 10 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen and one milligram per liter of total phosphorus. And those standards will only get stricter with time, many predict.

“The one and 10 I believe we can meet, until our [sewage] flows get to around four million gallons per day. Then we will have a difficult time meeting total nitrogen,” Turner said.

Kalispell’s sewage flows average about three million gallons per day. But flows can spike to four or even five million gallons per day in the spring because of inflow and infiltration issues, Turner said.

MANAGING AND making headway on those types of issues will be just one challenge for Turner. The public works department is responsible for everything from garbage collection, snow plowing and leaf pickup to water and sewer treatment, traffic signals, impact fees and road and infrastructure maintenance.

As a director overseeing so many city services, Turner said she plans to keep an open-door policy and welcomes feedback on how Kalispell is doing.

“I believe that I’m here to serve the citizens of Kalispell. That’s my job. And to make sure we’re providing the service they’ve come to expect,” she said. “I fully intend to provide that service and maybe improve it if it needs to be improved. So the more comments I get, the better I can assess things and improve.”

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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