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In Washington County, rain, fire and now sewage test public works crew

  • Article by: Kevin Giles
  • Star Tribune
  • August 27, 2013 - 8:32 PM

The toilet situation stinks at Washington County’s public works complex north of Stillwater, but after enduring unheated walls in winter, rainwater leaking into offices and a recent electrical fire, what’s one more inconvenience?

That’s the attitude Don Theisen took Tuesday after the septic drainfield failed and sewage backed up at the 50-year-old “north shop,” where engineers and park managers work and vehicles such as dump trucks, snowplows and Sheriff’s Office patrol cars are serviced and repaired.

“How long do you want to run a metro county highway department on port-a-potties?” said Theisen, the public works manager, after he appealed to the County Board for permission to move ahead with emergency repairs.

The 54-acre shop, built when Washington County’s population was a mere fraction of today’s quarter million residents, has shown its age to the extent that commissioners toured it last week to get a firsthand look at what all the commotion is about.

“Let’s get this done. It’s got to be done,” Commissioner Ted Bearth of Oakdale said Tuesday, remarking on the urgent need to overhaul buildings, grounds and utilities.

Once the word went out that indoor bathrooms were off limits, Theisen tried the portable plastic ones. As temperatures rose, he knew they weren’t the answer. He then hauled in air-conditioned bathrooms on trailers.

“We tried to put them inside, out of the sun, but then the building smells,” he said.

The 85 full-time and seasonal employees, some of them wearing suits, now are filing out to the trailers when they need to go. “We’re fortunate it’s August rather than January or mid-February,” Theisen said.

Sinks inside the main buildings are used for limited washing of hands and lunch dishes, he said, and the county’s public health division is monitoring sanitation. The toilet episode comes about a month after a fire started when a worker, dodging buckets that catch rain from the ceilings, plugged into a brittle outlet so he could vacuum water that leaked through a wall.

It’s with no small irony that the north shop is falling apart while the engineers who work there build roads and bridges and, in recent years, managed a $56.4 million expansion of courts, public offices and the Law Enforcement Center at the county campus in Stillwater.

“In some ways our public works building has been the shoe cobbler,” Theisen said, relating the parable about the cobbler who takes good care of his customers but whose own children go without shoes.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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