Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Earlier this month, neighbors witnessed a rather unusual sight at the Centennial baseball complex on the north side of Moorhead — men driving the city’s motor graders, pushing hockey pucks around the parking lot.
It was a refresher course for the season that has already begun. As the temperatures dip and snowfall whips around corners, the men at the wheel of the city’s fleet of 16 trucks, payloaders and motor graders were honing their precision at skimming the surface of streets and avenues. After maintaining 201 total miles of roadway during more clement weather, they were readying for what many residents may consider the main event, clearing the way for drivers during the always-unpredictable Minnesota winter.
This is Steve Iverson’s second winter at the helm of Moorhead’s large, but largely unheralded, Department of Public Works. Since being named director in March 2021 — “at the end of the winter that wasn’t,” he jokes — he has spent 18 months overseeing the services that keep the city’s streets and public lands both passable and presentable.
Iverson heads one of the largest city departments, second only to the police. With 62 full-time employees and 40 seasonal staffers, Public Works not only performs the city’s housekeeping tasks year-round but responds to more than 2,400 requests from residents every year about everything from potholes to snow-clogged intersections, and from garbage comings and goings to broken limbs on bedraggled boulevard trees.
It’s a fact of life, he says, that headlines are generated by what’s new. Maintaining all the rest — minding all those ongoing tasks that residents expect in their notably neat and clean home town — is a gift that Public Works allows them to mostly take for granted.
Iverson’s department, with its $17 million annual budget, provides services in six areas:
• Maintaining 26 city buildings encompassing just under half a million square feet of floor space.
• Managing, repairing and replacing 492 pieces of city-owned equipment, accomplished by a team of five mechanics.
• Caring for the 27,000 trees on city property, from branch pick-up and pruning to removing trees affected by Dutch elm disease, damaged by storms or old age, or vulnerable to the coming onslaught of the emerald ash borer. Six work on the forestry crew.
• Mowing and trimming 460 acres of parks and athletic fields along with two golf courses, 310 acres of road right of way, 230 acres of ponds and ditches, plowing 46 miles of walking paths and grooming cross-country ski trails in winter, and renovating park facilities. Golf course maintenance requires 24 seasonal employees during the season.
• Maintaining 201 total miles of roadway (almost 500 lane-miles) year-round. During the three warmer seasons, crews fill cracks and potholes, sweep streets, vacuum leaves from the gutters, apply seal coats of asphalt and aggregate, and complete pavement overlays. In winter they apply ice-preventing salt, sand and chemical brines, depending the temperature, and of course push and haul snow.
• Collecting and disposing of household and commercial garbage (“solid waste”) and recycling.
Being a custodian of Moorhead’s streets takes more than smoothing ridges, filling potholes and scraping away the snow. “We actively maintain our streets after construction is completed,” he explains. “Two years later, we seal coat them with asphalt and aggregate. It’s like the final frosting on the cake, so to speak. Every seven to 10 years,we do a complete pavement overlay to extend their life.”
Every street has its own useful life, he says — as long as 80 years, depending on the care it’s given. The biggest challenge is sealing cracks to prevent water from seeping underneath and disrupting the surface throughout the freeze-thaw cycle.
Garbage collection keeps 18 to 20 employees busy, compared to the 12 full-timers in street maintenance. The sanitation department runs three residential garbage routes, each including 850 stops. The trucks run seven days a week, rain or shine. Three more routes pick up commercial garbage Monday through Friday, as well as one on Saturday. Since the inception of single-sort recycling in 2017, trucks also empty the blue bins on two residential recycling routes and one that visits apartments and commercial clients every week.
The volume of all that trash is mind-boggling. Iverson estimates that regular waste would cover the entire floor of a large-sized meeting room to a depth of six feet … every day of the week. Recycled material would add another foot or so daily.
He lauds the employees who work as the city’s custodians. “We have a great crew here. They magically make it all happen every day,” he quips. “Everybody’s on the road by 6 a.m., and they keep going as long as they have to” — including 12-hour shifts during snow events. On those occasions, the regular streets team draws in help from parks and forestry. The department’s goal: clearing every street within 16 hours of when the snow stops.
Many of the drivers who run the graders, tractors, trucks and mowers are long-time city employees, helping to minimize the manpower shortages that seem to plague other cities’ operations. Moorhead does have current openings for three truck drivers in the street division, however, one full-time, the other two part-time.
Iverson, who interned in the same department in the 1980s while studying landscape architecture at NDSU, says returning to the department last year was both humbling and an honor. After decades mostly spent in private construction and engineering positions, he says he’s happy to be back.
And he’s enjoying the challenges — both the predictable ones, that is, and winter.
“We can control our destiny in the summer,” he observes. “This time of year, we’re just along for the ride.”