TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS — A look at how Harrison’s DPW leads the way & sets the bar

When you think of a town’s Department of Public Works, a few things probably come to mind. There’s snow removal, filling potholes, unclogging sewers. Maybe a few more things. And yet, the reality is that’s far from all one does. In fact, that’s only hitting the surface.

So, a few weeks ago, we were speaking with Harrison Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Dolaghan, who is the council’s liaison to the DPW. It was just a few days after a snowstorm blanketed the area with the white stuff.

We agreed it was time time let our readers know that DPWs — not just in Harrison — do a lot more than snow removal. Though, of course, in Harrison, the DPW has snow removal down to an amazing science. (But more on that later.)

Dolaghan invited me to sit down with him and Robert Van Riper, the superintendent of the HDPW, over at the department’s garage and office on Essex Street. It’s tucked away, practically falling off the map, adjacent to Interstate 280. It’s the nerve center for a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week operation that continues to operate at warp speed and does so despite a global pandemic that slowed down the rest of the world.

What was most striking happened about 20 seconds after arriving at the garage – everyone who works there likes each other – a lot. Everyone who was in the outside office was welcoming – and that notion was confirmed shortly thereafter.

“They really do like each other – there’s an amazing camaraderie,” Van Riper says of his department. “In work like this, it’s so important for everyone to get along, and they really do.”

Van Riper says there’s not a single exception to the notion, either. Everyone generally gets along. And this, in turn, translates into a tremendous workforce of women and men who not only had to work through the COVID-19 pandemic, but who wanted to work through it, despite all the danger they’d face by being out in the public – especially in the early days – when no one knew what to expect.

“We split them – one week in, one week out,” Van Riper says, noting that in that time frame, one of his employees, a laborer, had up to that point, worked every single day for over a year without taking a single day off.

MORE THAN SNOW REMOVAL

The obvious – HDPW does a tremendous job whenever there’s a snowfall. But what else does the department do?

For starters, unlike other towns, the HDPW is responsible for meter parking and its enforcement. So if you’ve ever been about Harrison and have seen one of those little white cars with someone driving around or with a street sweeper, that’s a DPW employee (in the car & sweeper.)

“We also operate the town parking deck,” Van Riper says.

There’s more.

They’re responsible for all sewers, catch basins, maintenance of town-owned buildings, heating, electric, air conditioning, school maintenance (thanks to a shared-services agreement between the town and the Harrison Board of Education), renovations, parking for the Red Bulls and much more. One employee is assigned just to Harrison Town Hall.

“We produced $123,000 in revenue from the Red Bulls parking alone for the budget,” Van Riper says.

Beyond all this, he says he’s proud the department “changed every boiler in every building, with one exception, over the last few years.”

Boilers in all of the schools were all changed, too, leading to more energy efficiency.

NEW WATER METERS

The DPW also oversaw the replacement of every water meter in every home and building in town. While that alone might not seem like all that much, it’s what followed that is big – and in itself, extraordinary.

“This is significant because we can now monitor whether anyone is overpaying, because of a leak,” Van Riper says. “We can actually monitor and control someone’s leak now. The system sends us an email when there’s an anomaly. And then we contact the homeowners.”

Now while the HDPW does a lot that is visible, there’s also work they do that is often not seen, rarely heralded.

“We’re involved with the town food pantry,” Van Riper says. “Picking up food, delivering, staffing it, we’re there. We’re a can without a label…”

The department is also responsible for the repair of all water mains. In the coming months, though not required to do so, Van Riper says he’ll be eliminating all lead in the aging system. Like with all else he does, he takes a pro-active approach to things whenever he can, though much of what the DPW does is reactive, like replacing a dead bulb in a street light or traffic signal, or filling a pothole.

NEVER A TYPICAL DAY

No two days are ever alike, Van Riper says, but each morning, the workers go out for litter removal to start the day.

“They’re also checking for curb damage or unsafe situations so any real problems can be addressed later in the day,” he says. “The sweepers go out every (week)day except for Wednesday when we do preventative maintenance – there’s no street sweeping.”

During the week, you might also find an employee doing mechanical work on a police radio car, a fire engine, an ambulance or any number of town-owned vehicles. And what is perhaps most extraordinary about this notion – and all the work the HDPW does – is that no one is hired, with only a few exceptions, for a specific job.

That means the laborer you see driving a sweeper one day could be fixing a broken catalytic converter another day. And while someone might be hired with no mechanic experience, everyone is taught how to do everything needed of employees ultimately.

WHY SUCH A SMOOTH OPERATION?

This one didn’t even take a second for Van Riper to answer.

“Because the mayor and council have given us the tools to do the job, so with that being said, you have a group of people who love the town, have families, care about the job, appreciate the benefits we do have by living in town, working in town and being a part of the community,” he says. “These men have learned to be men here. How to treat others. How to work in a group. And the synergy is just amazing. They all want to do to help each other – they all want to do to help our cause.”

Dolaghan, meanwhile, says he prefers to be in the background. In fact, he made it clear he’s hands-off, allowing Van Riper to do his thing, all while doing his best to be as supportive as he possibly can.

“Harrison is a well-managed town,” the councilman says. “Our town hall people are top-notch. We include everyone in our decisions. We make the decisions and if it’s in the best interest of the town we’re there for them. I’m there if they need me. But I don’t interfere.”

THE GREAT SNOW REMOVAL STARTED WITH WWII

So just why does Harrison nail snow removal every single storm?

It’s two-fold.

First, Van Riper says residents are extremely cooperative. When cars have to be moved – and this is the case on every single street after every snow fall – residents move them. He says very few cars have to be towed.

Second, Dolaghan says it all goes back the the 1940s – the World War II era – when Harrison was a beehive for wartime military production.

“Back then, every factory was retooled for the war effort. We had over 100,000 people coming into this town every day,”  Dolaghan says. “The town was going 24-7, and when it snowed, we had to move that snow and move it fast. During those years, the Town of Harrison was on Hitler’s bombing list. The Town of Harrison had a hand in almost every piece of equipment that was used in the war years.”

Need to contact the DPW? Call (973) 268-2296, send an email to dpw@townofharrison.com ro visit www.townofharrison.com/173/Public-Works/.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.