Ed Gebert/Times Bulletin
Ed Gebert/Times Bulletin
BY ED GEBERT

Times Bulletin News Writer

egebert@timesbulletin.com

Somebody has to do the dirty work. One of the guys charged with taking care of jobs that others do not want to do is City Engineering Supervisor Bill Lawson.

For over three years, Lawson has found himself responsible for a host of duties. On this day, the big job is mowing lawns. "We have about 35 yards now that have been either foreclosed or people have just left them," he related. "We end up having to send a certified letter out to the people, and we put it in the newspaper and try to contact them and try to get people to take care of them, but if they don't, the biggest thing is we help out the neighbors and get rid of the mess."

Of the 35 lawns on his list, Lawson got through 5 at the start of the day. The list of lawns seems to grow, especially in the current economic slowdown. Aside from the grass, the rest of the property can get to be unsafe and discomforting for neighbors. Lawson said it's probably the most frustrating part of his job. "I go out to these properties, and I see the kind of condition they get left in. Maybe a lot of the time the people don't have the means to get rid of there garbage and mow their properties, but I do it, you do it... it's frustrating to have to tell the neighbor that it'll take me a month to get this mess out of here. Unfortunately abandoned homes also come with abandoned garbage! Once we find it, we try to contact owners to try to get them to pick it up themselves, or else the city has to. It just becomes a major health hazard."

The run-down and trash-strewn properties are usually reported by neighbors who are tired of the eyesores. In those cases, Lawson is the representative of the city trying to set things right. Then there are the confrontations with property owners. Lawson shared, "I spend a lot of time talking with citizens, people who have garbage or lawns that need to be mowed and simply don't have the money to take care of them anymore. Unfortunately the city doesn't want to do it either, so there is a large fee associated with us doing it, and it generally goes on people's taxes."

The Engineering Department for the City of Van Wert is not large. Budget cuts forced the loss of the code enforcement officer, so that task falls to Lawson. He is joined by Engineering Aide Mark Harmon and Building Inspector Vince Barnhart. The department is currently stretched very thin due to the presence of work crews on the south edge of the city. With work on installing sanitary sewers along U.S. 127 and St. Rd. 118 underway, Lawson must send a man out to that project to serve full-time as an inspector for the city, assuring that the work is done according to plan.

"I'm down to me and one other guy doing the rest of the stuff," he pointed out. "We had to lay off our code enforcement officer, so we're trying to do the code enforcement. We also try to do the building inspections and the other work."

Some of the other work includes repair and upkeep of the city's 25 traffic signals. On this day, Lawson finds himself up in the bucket replacing bulbs in a stoplight. The city is in the midst of updating and upgrading all of the signals in town. "We still have a few very old signals, and we've been trying to get them switched out as quick as we can. But budget constraints are probably going to hurt us a bit," Lawson admitted.

Upgrades on the traffic lights include updates to the computer system within each signal and changing the lights from standard to LED lights. The LED lights are much brighter, more energy efficient and last longer. Instead of changing standard bulbs every six months, Lawson and crew will have to replace LED bulbs only every five years. The upgrade program has been going on for the last three years, and Lawson said that he hopes to have the last of the old standard bulbs switched to LED within two years.

For Lawson, expanding his capabilities is a very enjoyable process. "I've learned a lot since I got here. My background was basically aeronautical engineering, so I had some computer knowledge, but I've learned quite a bit on our signal setups," he said.

In addition to the automatic signals, Lawson's department is also responsible for maintaining and improving the close to 5,400 traffic signs in the city. The improvements must come in response to a federal mandate for signs to pass a certain reflectivity test. With a majority of the signs in Van Wert being 10-15 years old, they simply do not pass the test and must be replaced. "We replaced over 400 last year," Lawson reported. "We've replaced somewhere around 600 this year, and we probably have another 600-700 that we will switch out. primarily stop signs first, then speed limit signs. Most of the railroad signs have already been switched. We're in the process of changing the school signs over to the yellow-green florescent. That's the federal mandate for everybody, so that's one of our big programs that we hope to get farther along. We work on that as we can, between the other things."

Many of Lawson's days are filled with working on autocad files for zoning and street maps. These are necessary to keep updated so engineers working on projects like this summer's Downtown Streetscape or next year's Shannon St. Reconstruction will have all the correct information to reduce the chance of costly delays or damages during construction.

The Engineering Department also handles the community redevelopment program, filing paperwork and working with homeowners who make property improvements to homes within the set community development area to give owners tax abatements. Then there is the neighborhood stabilization program, designed to rehabilitate houses."Over the past two or three years, we've probably torn down nine houses that were abandoned and were health and safety hazards," stated Lawson. "The city has torn them down, but there's no money to do that anymore, so the federal government is working with us and with five other counties. They are granting us $134,000 for the work, and hopefully we can remove three more houses this year that have been basically abandoned and are condemned. That will help the value of the properties around them."

From building permits to cleaning up properties that no one else wants to touch, Lawson and his crew in the City Engineering Department spend their days trying to serve the residents of Van Wert. He said, "When you get right down to it, we're just trying to help do whatever they need to be done."