By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter
Before Frank Mulcahy came to San Juan Island to be director of Public Works, he managed and planned military and civilian public works facilities as a U.S. Navy commander in Kosovo and Iraq.
He had been to Friday Harbor several times while stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station — his wife grew up in Mount Vernon — and he didn’t hesitate to apply when he heard the director’s job was open.
“I knew there would be problems,” Mulcahy said recently, reflecting on his first 15 months as manager of the largest department of county government, “but so far none of them have involved live ammunition or explosions.”
“The work and people aren’t that much different from the Navy,” Mulcahy says. “I learned early on to respect the people I worked for and the people that worked for me, and I think that has served me well since I arrived here.”
He started at Public Works in mid-October, 2011. Public Works is the county’s largest department, with 65 full-time employees and an annual budget of about $13 million. In addition to maintaining county owned roads, public works operates stormwater and solid waste utilities, coordinates engineering for public projects, maintains county owned buildings and property, and buys and maintains the county’s fleet of cars, trucks, heavy equipment and boats.
“Budgeting and funding are critical in both military and civilian settings,” he said. “Funding shortages and past problems meant we had to deal with current problems rather than planning for the future,” he says about his 15 months as Director of Public Works for San Juan County.
“Since I came here I’ve had to challenge assumptions and adjust to changing conditions,” Mulcahy said. One way Mulcahy adjusted was to communicate, both within Public Works and with the County Council and the public. “I even write and send out communications myself, and people say they appreciate hearing directly from me,” he said.
Emphasizing communications and respect have resulted in what Councilman Rich Peterson calls “rave reviews and no complaints” from the council. “He’s corrected historic problems at Public Works and restored public confidence,” Peterson says. Councilwoman Lovel Pratt liked the way “he’s stepped up to and dealt with the challenges he faced”, and Councilman Howie Rosenfeld praised Mulcahy as “a man of integrity.”
Mulcahy said he manages operations with four result-oriented ideas in mind: productivity, quality, morale and safety.
“Productivity is not just working harder,” he says, “it’s working smarter, thinking of the future so you don’t have to re-do something you’ve already completed. Quality means doing the project better, thinking of what you’re doing as an investment.”
Morale and safety are workplace necessities, he says. “You won’t get the productivity you want or the quality you expect if the people doing the work don’t feel good about their jobs or their boss, or are worried about their safety on the job,” Mulcahy says.
Mulcahy thinks the 2012 big issue - solid waste collection and disposal, including transfer station operations - is “going well.”
“I came here in October knowing there had been problems,” he said. He says he tried to map out a strategy whether or not the council-proposed parcel fee to fund solid waste operations passed. “Whatever the vote, I knew that solid waste operations would have to change,” Mulcahy said. Failure of the property tax increase meant shifting gears and, at the council’s direction, moving to contract with private operators for the Orcas and San Juan stations.
“The success of the Lopez community in setting up their own solid waste operation showed what local initiative can do,” Mulcahy said, helping convince the county council that locally-based Orcas Recycling Services could put together a workable plan for operating the Orcas transfer station.
Mulcahy thinks Operations Manager Russ Harvey will conclude negotiations with ORS and Lautenbach Industries (the operating partner for San Juan Island) so that both the Orcas and San Juan island stations should be in private operation before April.
That will leave Mulcahy free to focus on the future, which includes finding “substantial funding” for the road and stormwater utility projects. “To get that money, we’ve got to plan projects now, and make them shovel ready when federal and state infrastructure money becomes available,” he says.
“We’ll need to find two to three million dollars per year for the next six years to fund new road and stormwater projects,” Mulcahy said. “But the good news is that 85 percent of the money will come from federal and state grant sources and I’m not afraid to ask the council and the voters to fund that other 15 percent.”
“We need to think of future spending as investments in the county’s future, not just as taxes, taxes, taxes,” he said as he talked about future planning with Russ Harvey, his Operations Manager, and Rachel Dietzmann, the county’s recently-appointed Chief Engineer.
One of those investments he wants to start planning for is a county-wide network of bike paths and hiking trails. Getting bikes and runners off the road is not a new idea, said Trails Committee chairwoman Tracy Roberson, referring to an extensive 2006 plan produced by the committee. But it’s an idea that Roberson, Peterson, Pratt and Rosenfeld enthusiastically endorsed, even as each council member recognized it as an expensive idea.
“I’m confident that the various Public Works managers are running their divisions well,” said Mulcahy, “so now we can start working on things people once thought were impossible here.”
“It’s all good,” Mulcahy concludes, using one of his favorite can-do expressions.