The best standards out there: George Crombie

Editor's Note: This issue features George Crombie, Public Works Director, City of Nashua, New Hampshire; Chair, APWA Solid Waste Management Committee; recipient of the 2001 Charles Walter Nichols Award; and 2002 Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year.

George Crombie with Oscar the Grouch© during the City of Nashua's automated trash collection kickoff

Tell us about your background: I went to the University of New Hampshire. While I was in school I worked for a public works director in the City of Somersworth, New Hampshire, a small community. I did everything from picking up trash and working in the office to patching potholes and plowing snow. When I graduated from UNH, I applied for a job in the Town of Durham, New Hampshire, the home of the university, as an assistant to the public works director. At first they thought I was too young. Then I guess they had a hard time finding somebody and called me back and hired me. Shortly thereafter I became the public works director in Durham. I think I was the youngest public works director at the time in New England.

I spent 13 years in Durham as the director. One of the first projects in the development of sludge composting in the United States was conducted in Durham, and I had the opportunity to work on that project with the university and to do a lot of writing during that time.

I then went up to the City of Burlington, Vermont. They had a number of separate departments, and this was the first time that all of these individual departments were brought together into one public works department. So I went in there as their first public works director. Over six years I basically developed that department. One of the major projects we did during that time was a $52 million pollution abatement project on Lake Chaplain. At the time it was the largest pollution abatement project in Vermont.

Then I moved as the Regional Director for the Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts, which basically covered the area south of Boston. It was an area comprised of over a million people and over 110 communities. Basically this department wrote all of the permits and did all of the environmental compliance work in that region in Massachusetts. They were looking for someone who could relate to communities and the issues that they were dealing with relative to trying to build environmental facilities at that time.

From there I was asked by the Secretary of Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts to become the Undersecretary of Environmental Affairs. The agency was responsible for all environmental regulations in Massachusetts, as well as all the parks and roadways around Boston. It was an agency of approximately 2,500 employees and about a $300 million operating capital budget. I spent from 1996 to 1999 there. When the Secretary left in Massachusetts, I had to leave as well.

I went to the City of Cleveland, Ohio for a short time as the Assistant Director of Public Utilities, which is an agency of about 1,800 employees. My major focus was to implement the Y2K program and changeover for the year 2000.

From there I became the Director of Public Works in the City of Nashua, New Hampshire, and I've been in Nashua for four years. It's a population of approximately 90,000 people. We have 200 employees, an annual operating budget of $22 million, and planned capital exceeding over $100 million.

My goal when I came to Nashua was to build the best possible public works department for a city of 90,000 people. Over the last three years we have totally rebuilt our park system. We put in a comprehensive solid waste management plan, retrofitting thousands of customers to automated trash collection. We spend over $100,000 a year on employee development—we've collaborated with the University of New Hampshire and put in a midline supervisors training program using professors from the university. We just renegotiated an administrative order with the EPA that's going to save the city $100 million in sewer fees. We've introduced numerous traffic calming projects, safe routes to school program, and a downtown parking plan. We revised and put in new programs for snow removal and street sweeping, and put in a strong finance and capital improvement program in the city.

Along the way, I've taught at Northeastern University in Boston in the Public Administration Program, teaching environmental policy and service delivery in the public sector.

Education: Along with my bachelor's degree from UNH, I have a master's degree in public administration from Northeastern University.

Favorite Book: I've got a lot of favorite books, but one that I would recommend that all public works directors read is the biography of Robert Moses, who was instrumental in building some of the major parks and roadways in the New York City area back in the '30s. The book is a mixture of the sociopolitical, economic, and other issues that a public works director deals with on a continuous basis. Robert Moses did a lot of good things; he also did some things that people certainly question. But I think it's an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all public works directors to read.

Hobbies/Interests: I like to play golf and I like to ski. Reading. And the grandchildren.

Role Model: The thing that I respect the most over my career are people that, despite the objections by some, stick to their convictions to see a project go through the hurdles of development, construction, and operation thereafter. Those people that work very hard at the public works profession are people that I really respect.

Career Accomplishments: Well, I look back to Durham, New Hampshire, and the initial development of sludge composting. As I said, we had one of the few composting facilities in the country at that time, and people really laughed about the reuse of sludge. This was back in the '70s. We built the plant that won the New Hampshire Outstanding Civil Engineering Award during that period, and to see the progression of the use of sludge throughout the United States from that point on has been very interesting to me. I'm glad that I was part of that very early on in my career.

When I went to Burlington, one of the major projects that I worked on was the cleanup of  Lake Chaplain. The beaches had to be closed—people couldn't swim because of the pollution going into the lake. We came up with a $52 million plan, went through our legislature, and were able to get a $12 million grant and a $26 million zero-interest loan. This was along with the money the city had in order to put this project into place. The project has now allowed those beaches to be reopened and the quality of lake water in the Burlington area to come back. That was a project that I'm proud of.

I worked on a number of projects in Massachusetts as the Regional Director. One was the cleanup of the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod where there had been a lot of pollution. When I took over the project they were spending $25-$30 million a year, and when I left that project it was over $100 million. One of our key criteria was that we fostered a partnering technique with community businesses and brought them to the table. I also managed and directed an organizational study for the Massachusetts Parks System.

In Nashua, the projects that we've been working on over the past year have won seven regional, state and national awards. The major ones are an EPA environmental merit award for the restoration of five landfills in the city. The Holman Stadium project was a design/build restoration project of a facility built back in the 1930s. That project won four awards: the APWA Project of the Year for Historical Restoration/Preservation; the New Hampshire Preservation Award; the New Hampshire Society of Civil Engineers Project of the Year; and the team that maintains that facility was a co-winner of the Atlantic League, a minor league, for the best-maintained field in the league.

Tell us more about the City of Nashua's Division of Public Works: We've set up certain principles that are important to us in all of our divisions. Investing in education is absolutely critical to us; as I indicated, we've spent over $100,000 a year in that area. We invest in technology; we feel very strongly that if you're going to be in the business you must invest in the very best technology, because that's where you're going to save money in the long run. Safety is the third principle that is very important to us. A fourth is strong project management and financial control. And the fifth is that we benchmark with the best practices in the business. Those are our five core principles.

What are some of the projects and activities of the Solid Waste Management Committee? There are a number of issues that the committee is working on. We just finished a book on reuse of landfills. This coming year, one of our goals is to look at biodegradation of solid waste; the less space we can take, the better we're going to be. We're going to be looking at recycling; the way we are managing recyclables is constantly changing, and we need to really understand that. Another area we hope to spend time with is the issue of employee safety. A lot of people don't know that picking up solid waste is one of the most dangerous jobs in a municipality, if not the most dangerous, relative to injuries. And one of the things that we've been talking about is to really understand why these injuries are being caused, and the principles we need to put into place to protect employees from the injuries.

The last concerns the whole issue of terrorist acts, and how you manage the solid waste component—managing the landfill, managing cleanup, protecting employees from the air emissions that come from a site like that, as well as the whole issue of transport of solid waste. There's a bill right now in Congress that sets up an inspection program for waste coming from Canada into the United States. So that whole area has to be looked at.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? I think first of all, it really sets the benchmark for the best standards and practices in the profession. I think that is very important. The ability to interact both on a chapter level as well as the national level is very important for overall professional development. The educational offerings by APWA are very important in how you run your organization, because you see the best practices in the industry. It also gives you a framework for arguing for a particular program or project, if you can relate to the best standards out there. So those are the reasons that I'm a member.

Not long ago I saw a study showing that most people who are part of an association are usually the most successful in their particular discipline. The study didn't just apply to public works; doctors, lawyers, whatever, your probability of being successful goes up exponentially when you are highly active with your peers and can review professional standards in what you do.