Potholes. Overflowing trash cans. Weeds. Overgrown brush. Faded crosswalks. Sand in the roads.
Nantucket’s public areas and infrastructure have seen better days, and the impacts of a critical staffing shortage at the town’s Department of Public Works have been evident all summer long.
The resignation of DPW Director Rob McNeil last month was just the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps the culmination of a staff exodus that has left the department “crippled” to use the words of Town Manager Libby Gibson.
Amid a summer in which Nantucket’s population swelled to what some believe was a record high, the DPW’s staffing crisis has come at the worst possible time.
There are currently nine vacant positions within the DPW. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s 27 percent of the department’s budgeted workforce. The town hired none of the usual seasonal DPW employees it typically does each summer because no one applied. All three members of the DPW administrative office staff recently resigned or transferred out of the department. Other than the fleet manager, there are currently zero mechanics employed by the DPW. And many pieces of equipment and vehicles are currently broken down, further limiting the remaining employees’ ability to get work done.
“The DPW is rather crippled at the moment,” Gibson said. “With the entire office staff gone as of Monday, we’re definitely going to be asking for patience from the public.”
On Tuesday morning this week, the door of the DPW’s administrative office of Madaket was open, but there was no one in the building. While most of the staff were out on the road, of course, it was emblematic of the predicament the department finds itself in at the peak of the summer season.
“It may seem small but town has never looked so bad with weeds, overgrowth and sand and trash,” said one DPW employee who spoke with the Current on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by the town. “The sweeper only went out two or three times since (one employee) left. This year has been bad anyway but it’s never been like this. We used to pride ourselves on how things would get done that people never knew, they just knew the island looked clean. Potholes are a huge thing too. They never let us go out to fix them much and probably won’t until we get some more employees.”
What type of work has suffered as a result of the shortage?
“All the things we’ve always done like cleaning town, brush cutting, general infrastructure maintenance, and all kinds of things were not scheduled,” the person said. “It was all reactive instead of proactive. So we kept falling behind. They had us doing things that normally wouldn’t be priority.”
While some in town government told the Current that McNeil had started to figure out the ropes of the island and was settling into the position after a somewhat turbulent four years, his abrupt departure in July followed numerous resignations and transfers that left the department’s ranks decimated. During McNeil’s tenure at the DPW, which began in July 2017, 25 employees left the department. That includes 17 resignations, seven transfers out of the DPW to other town departments, and one retirement.
The resulting labor shortage within the department has not just left parts of the island looking shabby this summer. Some residents believe it has also created unsafe conditions, including in Sconset where Sankaty Road homeowner Nicole Cribbins said the town’s failure to cut back brush along the bike path contributed to two bicyclists being hit by vehicles pulling out of driveways.
Cribbins said she began contacting the town in early April regarding the brush around the bicycle path near her driveway, and followed up with weekly calls to the DPW. But nothing was done even after a bicyclist was hit near her home on July 2nd. Only after a second person was struck by a car on July 4th – which prompted calls to the town and the police department – did the brush get cut back to provide needed visibility.
“It’s frightening,” Cribbins said. “The week following the accident they did cut it back. The gentleman (from the DPW) apologized. He said ‘I know this has been an open item but we’ve been severely understaffed. All of our bush hogs are not in operation.”
Meanwhile, dozens of faded crosswalks around the island were never repainted heading into the summer. When asked about that situation at a recent Select Board meeting, Town Manager Libby Gibson said the DPW had actually outsourced the work to an off-island contractor. But the company could not get a boat reservation to come over to the island in time to complete the work before summer.
While some new hires are in the pipeline, Gibson said, there are other issues that will make rebuilding the department’s workforce challenging. Housing ranks at the top of that list, like it does for all island employers, but there’s also the Nantucket’s building boom that is attracting workers to the private sector who might otherwise consider a DPW job. Or in some cases, workers are leaving the DPW for higher paying work in the trades.
Meanwhile, the apparent increase in both the island’s year-round and seasonal populations has mounted additional pressure on the DPW.
“Trash this summer has been the worst it’s ever been,” Gibson said. “People are completely irresponsible with their trash. We can’t keep up with it.”