November 11, 2004


Works for Newburyport's public
By Bill Plante

Chances are, if you live in Newburyport, you do not get up in the morning and ask, "I wonder what Tony Furnari is up to today?" But if you do, it might be rewarding to ask why.

If you wake up a couple of months hence to a foot of snow, you may wonder where the city's plow trucks are if they have not come down your street Or, if you trip on bricks pushed up by tree roots on High Street, you may scoff at the notion that while curbings have been lowered to permit wheelchair access at intersections, some sidewalks are so rough, wheelchairs would require four-wheel drives and shock absorbers to negotiate the bumps. As for fallen leaves, householders will have to stash them in paper bags if they want them to be picked up by the recycling truck, because there is only so much work a limited crew can accomplish.

I met with Anthony J. Furnari recently as a result of asking "How come?" about what has happened to the Bartlet Mall pond since we restored the fountain 15 years ago, because he is director of the Department of Public Works.

Furnari came to Newburyport in 2002 from Salem, where he was assistant director, and is as upbeat and as enthusiastic about the challenges here as he is about those in his department. I came away from three meetings with him with enough information to write a chapter in a book entitled "Things to Know About Newburyport (if you want to understand what's not happening and why)."

He exudes cheerful energy and it is well that he does. He does not go to bed at night or get up in a morning without his job because the city lives seven days and nights a week, and much of its infrastructure is his responsibility.

That there is a new proposal to consolidate the public works, sewer and water departments is not a surprise, given that consolidation is seen as more efficient, especially when it comes to cost saving.

Cost savings is another way of dealing with tax rates, a strategy that usually wins friends and influences taxpayers.

My concerns over the deplorable condition of Frog Pond opened an unexpected door. I had no clue of the workload handled by the public works department or its relationship to other city services.

Take the workload for his three mechanics. There are 65 vehicles in the public works inventory, the youngest of which is the Mack R-487-P dump truck, bought in 2004. The oldest is the 1969 SnowFighter. That's a fair workload for three mechanics dealing with heavy equipment, but that is added to by care for all other municipal vehicles, including firetrucks, public safety vehicles and police cruisers. Together, the number reaches a 100.

Vacations and sick time add to the workload for those working through the absences of the total force of 22 employees, who are responsible, in one way or another, for everything from that stretch of Plum Island roadway and beach along Northern Boulevard to the West Newbury line, and from the Merrimack River to Newbury. That includes school external infrastructures, trees and parks, street drainage, two cemeteries (Highland and Old Hill) playgrounds and parks. In all, the non-street areas include just over 740 acres, a considerable number of which require grass cutting.

As to the latter, the DPW has, on paper, five men to cut the city's grass and tend its two cemeteries on the hill southwesterly of the Mall, where, and it may come as something of a surprise, the men provide the grave digging and burial, in addition to maintenance. But that five men is something that appears more often than not on paper, because with vacations and other demands to be met, that effective manpower is often cut to three.

Newburyport is richly blessed with parks that have to be presentable, their equipment kept safe and useable, and their facilities, where they exist, sanitary.

Lower Bartlet Mall is neither clean, safe for accessibility or presentable, although help is on its way to recovery because of initiatives in process that will improve access to the pond area. Meanwhile, all that which looms so attractively along High Street is a mask for what lies down over the bankings, because the pond is being efficiently choked into submission, its border, once resplendent with a gravel walk, is a marginal bog, and its voracious plant growth attracts everything from Styrofoam cups and boxes to, as I discovered on a recent Sunday stroll, what appeared to be someone's highly personal, abandoned laundry.

Pond maintenance is a special challenge, because of environmental concerns.

A fountain is one, environmentally correct way to help, and the city went to a major effort to see to that contribution, only to witness its failure because of a lack of maintenance over time. The presence of a properly maintained fountain helps aerate the pond water to lessen stagnation. Frog Pond is a cesspool of rotting vegetation, and neglect did in the new pump and plumbing installed through charitable giving of the Newburyport Improvement Society. It had been drained, the fountain removed and restored, and the pond refilled. That was in 1988-89.

There is hope. The DPW has the pump working again, but piping leading to the fountain remains either clogged or broken. The swan sculpture will continue to be dirty white until means are found by which the upward thrust of water is directed away from the sculpture rather than through the center of it.

But as for correcting the problems created by the well-intended, but abandoned, plantings, the only solution found more than a century ago was to remove what was then in place and to see to it that no more grew for most of the intervening century, and that is going to take considerable effort and not a little money.

Furnari doesn't say so, but the short of it is that the Department of Public Works faces issues and complexities of resolution that, a decade or two ago, were simpler than they are today, and these solutions have to be realistic at budget-setting time. It is not whether the department can do more with fewer men and lower cost. It is whether it can do less with fewer men and lower cost, and whether the community is willing to do without some of the services provided. If the answer is no, the next question is whether it is willing to fund the people necessary to do what it cannot otherwise do.

Two years ago, Furnari had five more men than he does this year, and he's short-handed because he's lost them over that time because of budget cuts.

Nor is this department overloaded with management. Allen Frost, senior foreman, has 10 men "on the street," which means seeing to it that first things come first with the help at hand.

Archie Adams, assistant director, handles the office with all the details connected with hour-to-hour and day-to-day operations.

As for Tony Furnari's office, there is one at DPW headquarters on Perry Way, complete with desk, chair and computer, but mostly it is where he is during an endless work day, and he is never where Archie can't locate him. When you are running a department that is required to do all that the DPW is asked to do, budget cuts that lop the hands-on payroll to save money are not done without having to pay a different kind of cost.

But it isn't only about funding, because communities are constricted by regulations that were designed to protect the public interest. Take those bricks heaved up by tree roots or sink holes around the bases of the city's beautiful trees. It used to be, if a tree was offending public safety, it was cut down without much consultation. Not any more. Touch a tree without a proper study and approval, every institutional fiber vibrates, and the don't-touch-a-branch-without-approval police come running.

Then there is the project that will see to the uprooting of some of Inn Street's beautifully paved surface because of the need to replace electrical conduit crushed over time, despite a lack of vehicular traffic. DPW crews will be involved there.

Funding for doing anything involving the city's infrastructure is also interlocked. Local, state and federal taxes fill the bloodstream of the infrastructure of a city, and where there is that kind of nourishment, regulations and regulators abound.

Roughly connected by a dotted line, and of lesser, however eagerly sought import, are the private foundations' bequests with which Newburyport is generously blessed. It was such foundations that nourished the restoration of the fountain, saved major statues, aided the rebuilding of the boardwalk and the equipped playgrounds in recent years, to say nothing of the parks themselves, that were the gifts of citizens.

It does little to make too much of the past, when local taxpayers paid most of the freight and controlled most of what was done and how. That was then, and this is now. But the sense of community, with involvement at all levels by those living in them, is essential to whatever contentment may be achievable.

As for governance, department heads were once autonomous within a relatively uncomplicated system. Budgets were separate, under department heads who would lobby for their needs, and control was direct, between local public-office-holders and the taxpayers. Today, the relationships are made far more complex by way of regulations set by more distant governmental apparatus. The consolidation of departments for efficiency concentrates control, but demands more of the appointed authority by way of adapting assets to need, the challenge for all times.

That places more of a burden on all those involved, not excluding attempts such as this one, that led me from a remark I had made in response to the couple on the Mall park bench several weeks now past, who had been admiring the pond lilies at the Mall. They saw them as beautiful. I saw them as a seduction leading to disaster, and this is where that inquiry has led.

Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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