Lock Haven manager recalls 41 years of public service

LOCK HAVEN — “You assume you can drive down the street and the lights are going to work and the roads are going to be clear. You assume you have police services when you need them, when you flush the toilet the water will go down, and when you turn on the tap, water will come out. We take these things for granted.”

Former Lock Haven City Manager Rich Marcinkevage talked about the days when all of these little things go right and no one complains.

And there have been days when something isn’t working — days when the phones ring and ring.

He started his 41 years of public service as the city engineer in 1976, taking over for Warren Ohl when he retired. Marcinkevage then became city manager in 1997, and retired from that position just last month.

As city engineer, he could put a project together and see it through to completion, he said. As manager, though, he was involved in the day-to-day operations of the city and its services.

“There is no typical day. You never get done in a day what you intended to do,” he said.

Although he said he couldn’t pinpoint one favorite experience, Marcinkevage looked back over more than four decades of projects that have improved the city.

He did choose one “scary episode” as possibly his least favorite — a drought watch that arose in 2007 when the level of water in Ohl Reservoir had been lowered for a dam project there. To provide enough water for everyone, the city ran about a mile of piping straight from the river to the water filtration plant, setting the system up in just two weeks. Rights-of-way from 22 properties were quickly acquired so the pipe could get from Point A to Point B. The pipe itself came in 40-foot lengths that had to be welded together using specialized equipment.

The city also set up a small chlorination system down by the river; rented two pumps, which required diesel fuel to be delivered two or three times a day; and bought four or five big polyethylene tanks that could be placed throughout the water system if needed.

River water was filtered, treated and sent to all customers for about a month, until the water levels in the Ohl and Keller reservoirs were higher.

“It makes you stop and think, what if we couldn’t have done that?” Marcinkevage said.

The episode highlighted how complex the reservoir system can be, he said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recently told the city to improve its reservoir dams, to the tune of $12-15 million. One of the big questions this future project poses is how to meet daily water needs while the work is being done, Marcinkevage said.

Perhaps the best part of his job over the years was working with the fine staff members the city has had, Marcinkevage said.

He has fond memories of the late Rich Ardner, who retired in 1997 as public works director.

He also recalls changing the lights on Paul Mack Boulevard, working with fire truck driver Bruce Bryerton and streets foreman Chip Laubscher.

“This is not a thankless job,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people say supportive things over the years.”

No one takes on a government career thinking he can make everybody happy, he said, but a little thanks goes a long way. Once a woman from Sunset Pines sent $20 for pizza for the road crew, he said, and Lock Haven resident Germaine Weaver always sends compliments.

“Local government is where the rubber hits the road because the people you are dealing with are here. You get citizen input,” he said.

Since 1997, the city’s administrative staff numbers have been reduced by four full-time positions. Hours were reduced in the treasurer’s office, there was a reduction in the water office, the code and zoning enforcement jobs were combined into one job, and the position of the manager’s secretary has been eliminated.

The position of public works director has not been filled since 1997, either, with Marcinkevage taking on some of those duties.

The new city manager, Gregory J. Wilson, brings a different background and different strengths to the job, so the plan is to hire a public works director sometime this year, Marcinkevage said.

Even without a director, the public works department has grown over the years, with two more people hired. The crew has mechanical skills and takes good care of the city-owned properties, extending their functional life, Marcinkevage said.

Meanwhile, there is one fewer full-time position on the sewer crew, he noted.

There were very few retirements from city jobs in a 15-year period, but retirements have come in a flurry over the past six years.

The city operates under the council-manager form of government, which offers more flexibility than other Pennsylvania cities of the same size have, he said. Even though the city has been through two government study commissions, it has stuck with the council-manager form since 1970.

“City council members may disagree on issues, but at the end of the day, they come together, they work together and try to do the best thing they can for the area,” Marcinkevage said.

None of the many improvements made over the years would have happened without their support, he added.

IMPROVEMENTS

These improvements include the $86 million dike-levee flood protection system.

The dike-levee was built in 1994 and it was a 20-year fight to get it, Marcinkevage said.

He started as a city employee in 1976, and then-city manager Frank Taggart had already developed the concept of a local flood protection planning board.

“One of the first things I did as city engineer was to place duck tape on the top of utility poles on Water Street to show where the top of the levee would be. We wanted people to get the magnitude of the project,” Marcinkevage said.

He remembers standing on the old tennis courts at Lock Haven University and watching blocks of ice half as big as a car rush past, with the water up to the top of the bank. He recalls thinking, “We clearly need flood protection.”

Even though the levee was “a hot issue” and it sparked a wave of political involvement by its opponents, it has protected Lock Haven a number of times from flood waters. This has allowed for development downtown, including the Opera House Apartments, a new CVS store, and the Fairfield Inn, Marcinkevage said.

The city also has made great use of the Corman Amphitheatre, a feature of the levee, sponsoring free summer concerts on the floating stage for two decades.

Another big project was built in 1994 — the Central Clinton County Water Filtration Plant.

And, the city has a new sewage treatment plant. It went online four years ago and replaced the previous technology, which dated to 1975.

Although it was not a city project, council did facilitate the sale and development of school district land into Susquehanna Square. The Fairfield Inn operates there and a new development is coming soon. Susquehanna Square not only placed developed property on the tax roles but also facilitated the walkway that connects the downtown to Lock Haven University, as well as the building of a new high school stadium.

Streetscape projects have provided new sidewalks and lighting downtown over the decades.

What may be the last streetscape project of this era is currently moving through the planning stages, and once it is completed, the city will have no trouble finding other ways to use its Community Development Block Grant funds, Marcinkevage said.

Paving, for one thing, is an ongoing big-ticket item. If all the streets in Lock Haven were placed in a 20-year rotation for paving, the city would spend about $350,000 per year to keep up with the schedule, he reported.

GRANTS

The city has been very successful at winning grants for projects to meet new or tighter environmental standards. For water treatment, sewer treatment, dam projects and similar works, grant dollars help keep the cost affordable, Marcinkevage noted.

The CDBG program has been helpful in getting other things done as well, he said, with those federal dollars available for recreation, street paving, and similar uses.

“When you are successful at implementing grants, you are more likely to get them,” he said, and under former City Planner Leonora Hannagan (another recent retiree), the city has always tried to stay within the budget, get projects done on time, and follow the grant rules to the letter.

The city is currently looking for grants for the required improvements to the Keller, Ohl and Castanea water supply dams, as well as for the East Church Street Streetscape project.

Maintaining, replacing and building infrastructure are always big-ticket items.

“Unless you’ve been somewhere where they don’t have good quality water, you don’t appreciate how important these projects are,” Marcinkevage said. “You take good water for granted in America, because it’s pretty much mandated across the board.”

We also take for granted that our homes and work places are free of toxic chemicals, even though Lock Haven was “a hotbed for chemical industries at one time,” as Marcinkevage said.

The city has seen a number of chemical cleanups in recent years that were funded by sources other than local tax dollars.

The new Lock Haven Court apartment building was dedicated last month, on the site of the Karnish Instruments cleanup.

Monitoring wells were installed during the Lock Haven Laundry cleanup, and those wells will continue to be checked, according to Marcinkevage.

He remembers, as do many local residents, when the former Drake Chemical plant was a Superfund cleanup site, and he has some stories to tell about it…

Before the Drake soil incinerator was set up and running, the preliminary site work hit gas lines twice, and the local fire companies had to set up a fog spray each time to capture the gas, he said.

In another instance, workers stirred up the sludge in an above-ground tank of oleum, with the goal of pumping it all out of the tank. They had to wear protective suits and reach in through a hole in the top. The process sounds a bit iffy — and that’s just how it turned out. The oleum sludge reacted with water and created a cloud over Paul Mack Boulevard. Someone ended up paying for new paint jobs for about 110 cars.

Marcinkevage remembers running over to the site and using the “red phone” there to call the 911 center and say, “Please tell people not to stop on the highway to see what’s going on.”

THE STATE OF THE CITY

As he got ready to leave his position, Marcinkevage did some tidying up. He packed away the abundance of files and papers that formed his office. In his last days, his Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence still hung on one wall. He was nominated for the award by the Pennsylvania Municipal League, and Gov. Tom Wolf presented him with the honor in 2017.

He also has left the city in a good position.

“The city is stable. It has an industrial base. We are lucky to have First Quality and what they are doing,” he said.

The local First Quality plant is actually in Castanea, but it’s a big industry and what it does affects Lock Haven, often for the good.

Not-so-good effects stem from truck drivers headed to the plant who don’t follow signs or directions. However, a new access road has been designed that should help with truck traffic, and residents can expect some action on the road this year, Marcinkevage said.

Lock Haven is also lucky to have an airport. In recent years, the airport’s lobby was renovated to make it more welcoming, the runway was reconstructed, runway lighting was improved, and new equipment was purchased, including a snow plow truck.

The airport is not a real money-maker but it benefits the city all the same, according to Marcinkevage. Any rumor that the airport will be shuttered is “not at all true,” he stated.

“Realistically, we can’t close it. There has been major federal investment there,” he said, “and with the benefits the airport provides, there is no reason to want to close it.”

Marcinkevage has been serving on a statewide committee that reviews how airports impact their local communities. The benefits include employment, a reason for businesses to settle here, and another avenue of access in emergencies like a major flood all around Lock Haven.

The airport will be studied when the city’s comprehensive plan is updated. So will recreation, the downtown “and everything,” Marcinkevage said. City residents will be able to give their opinions, too.

He predicts that future projects will include dealing with surface water in the hill section. The gravity storm sewers there work OK in some weather, but not in winter when water from household sump pumps and French drains flows onto the streets and turns to ice. The city salts roads in that section heavily, but sometimes it is not enough, he said.

And now that the last funding from PennVest for the new sewage treatment plant has been drawn down, the city can turn more of its attention to sewer line maintenance, he said. The sewer line on Susquehanna Avenue along the river bank is old clay pipe, and while clay can last good long time, the pipe joints can go bad. Slip-lining is an option here, Marcinkevage suggested.

With his retirement, the city has lost an engineering mind filled with detailed knowledge acquired over decades.

But not entirely.

Marcinkevage plans to serve as the volunteer engineer for the city authority, following in Warren Ohl’s footsteps. He and his wife, JoAnn, will still have plenty of time to travel and visit grandchildren.

The new city manager is Gregory J. Wilson. He trained for the job under Marcinkevage, serving as assistant city manager.

“Greg has a really good educational background in management and is very familiar with the Third Class City Code and all the regulations,” Marcinkevage said.

“I think he’ll do well.”

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