Jacob Tawil has his hands full. As the commissioner of public works of the city of Middletown, he's in charge of the water and sewage treatment plants and the water system.
“We have five reservoirs/lakes, dams, water shed areas to protect as well as a wastewater treatment plant and collection system,” he said. “We also handle all the roads, streets and sanitation, code enforcement, building department/inspector, the department of public works general administration and permits.”
And that's just for starters.
He's also known for doing battle with beavers. That's right. Beavers.
“We have beavers in a remote location outside the city,” Jacob said. “They're extremely active. I call them smart engineers. They keep making dams, destroying them then clearing it. They're geniuses. They've done what they have to do and completely flood the culverts. During freezing weather conditions, the beavers would cause the water to back up and flood the major road. We tried to get contractors to come in. Nobody wanted to touch it so we had to do it in-house. We had to come up with some things that I never dreamt of doing in my life. We had to deal with it. We set up a cofferdam in order to clean it slowly so all the water wouldn't flush down the drain and flood everyone else down the line. It was a unique challenge.
“We always knew the beavers were doing it. We tried to stay one step ahead of them. That was a battle for years. They'd always win and when they win, it's bad. They're still causing trouble. Believe it or not, the ultimate solution is designing a big culvert in there then replacing the two culverts so a human can walk inside. Those beavers will never be able to plug it again. It was a half a million-dollar solution. It's sickening but what are you going to do? It's part of the job.”
All about the Man
Born in Palestine, Jacob came to this country in 1980. He attended Syracuse University, majoring in civil engineering. After graduation, he worked for the engineering firm, United Engineering Group, for a short time.
“Then I applied for a job in Middletown,” he said. “I got three offers. One from Mobil Exxon (at the time it was only Mobil) to oversee construction projects. Another from a large precast company in Philadelphia and the third offer was to work in a small consulting engineering firm in Middletown. I chose Middletown. My thinking at the time was that I would gain a lot of experience. I'd be exposed to all kinds of projects instead of doing precast design or working for construction or overseeing the construction of some Mobil gas stations, buildings, facilities or pipelines.
“That's what happened. I was exposed to various types of water and waste treatment plants, infrastructure design, subdivision, road design. All kinds of engineering — development, storm water management. I ended up sticking more to the environmental engineering aspect of civil engineering, which is designing water and sewer treatment plants, pump stations, water and sewer lines, storm sewer and so on.
“I was working with the small engineering firm Shewan McEvely in Middletown. I became one of the principals and was in charge of the region here in Orange County and the surrounding counties. In 1989, me and another engineer started a construction business while working as consulting engineers. We were building whatever we were qualified to design — sewer and water pump stations, upgrading wastewater treatment plants, building water and sewer lines, reconstructing roads, curbs and sidewalks. At the time, we were trying to come up with some joint venture between the engineering and construction business.”
In 2003, the long-standing commissioner of public works for the city retired. The city went through several commissioners of public works but they couldn't find what they wanted. That's when they approached Jacob to be the interim commissioner.
“I was doing most of the work anyway. My kids were born here, went to school here. We've always lived in Middletown. I felt loyalty and allegiance to the city, so in 2005, I accepted the position.”
When it's time to relax, you can find Jacob enjoying all kinds of water activities from boating to snorkeling, swimming, surfing or just sitting on the beach.
“We go to the Poconos or the Long Island or New Jersey shores. I prefer the ocean any day, but it's safer boating on the lake.”
Jacob is a proud member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Water Works Association.
All About the Job
It didn't take Jacob long to discover the many demands of the commissioner's job.
“You have to be attentive 24 hours a day,” he said. “Things are happening all the time. It's an old city and it has a lot of old infrastructure that requires immediate attention. The nature of the beast in our business is if you don't see it, you don't worry about it until it breaks. That's not how you deal with infrastructure. You have to be proactive and perform preventative maintenance. You must have some kind of plan to upgrade your underground water and sewer lines, which are the lifelines of the city. You can live with anything except if you have a watermain break or a sewer backs up. Then the world stops when you open up your faucet and there's no water or the water isn't clean or up to the standards or you can't flush your toilet. Anything else you can live without. Water and sewer, you can't. That's why me and my staff must be on top of it 24 hours a day.”
Jacob admits the city has a tremendous grid of old water and sewer lines and storm sewers.
“We have equipment to handle any sewer blockage. We also can send cameras underground to inspect the sewer lines to see if there's a collapse or blockage. Our pipes are inspected annually about 5 to 10 percent each year. They're logged so we can plan on a pipe replacement for capital projects. The camera and vac truck cleans the manholes and catch basins for excavation to avoid damage. The equipment has as well. We saved a lot of money but now it's getting old and sooner or later we'll have to upgrade.”
The department of public works is responsible for the city's sanitation, building inspection, code enforcement and sewage and wastewater treatment plant.
The city has five sanitation trucks. Currently, it's undergoing a major evaluation to change the trucks from rear loaders to ones with a robotic arm.
“Each truck is approximately $350,000 so it will be a major investment. We made a deal with the truck suppliers, so we can try it out for several months before we buy their trucks. That way we can make sure we can maneuver throughout our streets. Some are narrow, others are one-way. The money we pay for rental would be reimbursed if we buy the trucks. So, there won't be a penny wasted.”
Typically, the building inspector sits on the planning board and the zoning board of appeals to represent the public works department. Building permits, certificates of occupancy, sidewalk replacement, curb cut, sign permits and more are administered through Jacob's office.
“We have five certified code enforcement officials. They issue rental permits for single, two-family and multiple dwellings. Basically, you have to get a permit if you want to rent anything in the city. We started that years ago. More and more communities are trying to prevent overcrowding and combatting illegally converting from single to two-family or three family to renting rooms in a house. It's all for quality of life and safety.”
Water Treatment Plant
The city has a state-of-the-art water treatment facility. It has conventional sedimentation and filters.
“Our water comes from reservoirs miles and miles outside the city. We filter the water and send it to cus-tomers and the adjacent communities.”
Sewage/Wastewater Treatment Plant
“Our capacity is 8.5 million gallons/day. We did a major upgrade in 2009. We're continuing to make more im-provements, such as replacing major pumps. We're also focusing on sludge treatment. We're trying to maximize the amount of solids in our sludge. We have to remove the water and take it to a landfill. It's difficult to get rid of because of limited landfill capacity and the nature of the sludge. A certain amount has to be taken out to mix it with solid waste for the stability of the landfill. It's to everyone's advantage — especially to us — to minimize the number of tons we ship out of the waste water treatment plant every day. The cost is increasing, so we're looking at the different technologies and fine-tuning within our wastewater treatment plant to achieve more solids than sludge.”
The department recently installed a new vehicle tracking system. It tracks every piece of equipment no matter where it is.
According to Jacob, “It's for accountability and productivity of our crews and departments. You can tell how fast the vehicle is going. You can go back and see its history, where it was at any given moment/time … speeding, accidents, hit and run incidents. We'll know if they break down. It's knowing that someone is watching. You can't watch everybody every minute if you have 85 people. Not that you need to, but sometimes things happen. People complain. You take advantage of technology to be as productive and accountable as possible for the taxpayers and the elected officials. If there was an issue, we can go back and look at the history to see where this guy is and what he was doing; for example, speeding during snowplowing or pushing the snow back too far in the front yard. Whatever it is, we can track it and quickly put an end to it.”
Jacob also updated 7,500 water meters for the residents.
“You get four readings a day,” he said. “So, if you have a water leak or a pipe is frozen and you're not there, the meter will send you a text message. Residents also can see how much water they've used for the day/month. Again, it's using technology to make life easier, to be able to conserve water and run your house more efficiently.”
As the department's “top dog,” Jacob is responsible for maintaining the city's 75 miles of road, which translates into 230 lane miles. How long does it take to maintain those roads in the winter?
“It depends on the amount of snow. I remember in some instances our crews were non-stop, just go to the garage and take a nap or have something to eat and get back on the road. Depending on the intensity, we won't stop until the roads are clean, until the pavement is black. About 20 of the employees are part of the snowplow operation. We don't just count on the street department to do the cleaning. We take personnel from the water department and possibly sanitation who have CDLs to help with the snow plowing.
“We have 12 dump trucks with plows,” he added. “Then, we have other support equipment, like front loaders, graders that we deploy during bad snowing events. We have large truck-type snowblowers and pick-up trucks with plows to handle the parking areas. We also use backhoes. We put plows on everything, except for the sanitation trucks, so everything is ready to go.”
Eighty-five crew members and staff help Jacob serve the city's 28,600 residents. They include Chris Gross (P.E.); Mark Pengel (deputy commissioner for water and sewer, street and sanitation departments); Jeff Rysinger (water and wastewater treatment plant operator); and Walter Welch (building inspector, buildings and code enforcement division).
Under Jacob's dutiful eye, the city of Middletown's highway department runs on a total operating budget of $19 million that's $7.5 million for water; $5.5 million for sewer; and $6 million for the department of public works. It also receives an annual CHIPS allocation of $614,000 and $114,000 for PAVE-NY.
To fulfill its responsibilities the department uses a convoy of equipment that consists of:
• 12 dump trucks
• three front loaders
• two graders
• two snow blower trucks
• two backhoes
• three Mason trucks
• a boat
• sewer jet truck
• several pickup trucks, cars and SUVs to support all departments
• vac truck (share with neighboring municipality)
• underground camera system (share with neighboring municipality)
How does Jacob budget for new equipment?
“I have an annual capital budget,” he said. “We usually submit a list of things we need and then negotiate with the mayor and common council. I have to advocate and explain my position and why I need this piece of equipment and what's wrong with the other equipment. I have to justify why keeping the old pieces will cost the city more money in the long run. If we keep the old one, repairing and dumping money on it just to keep it going, it won't be cost effective for the city. We're better off buying a new piece of equipment with a new warranty. Once I explain it to them, they typically become more receptive.
“We just bought four new code enforcement vehicles. We also purchased several new pickup trucks. One is for the deputy and another for the support personnel. Last year, we got a new front-end loader and five new dump trucks. Each one is worth a quarter of a million dollars.”
Looking back, the most difficult part of the job thus far for Jacob has been being available 24 hours a day.
“That's difficult and demanding. It catches up to you. It's hard on my family. They support me but at the same time you know they're complaining. Most of the time they keep it to themselves, but sometimes I hear about it.”
One of the most important aspects is maintaining quality service.
“That's especially true whether it's plugging the potholes, making sure the traffic lights are working and the roads aren't slippery or providing the best quality and safest water for our customers.”
Jacob is quick to admit that he was most surprised by the intensity of the job.
“I have to be involved in every aspect of almost everything that goes around in this department. It's the nature of the beast. Because it's a city and things happen all over, my deputies and I are on call 24 hours a day. That means even authorizing overtime in the middle of the night.”
What has been the most challenging?
“In-flow and infiltration, which in any sewage filtration system, especially the older ones, you have during wet weather conditions. There's lots of water seeping into your sewage collection pipes and into the sanitary sewer. That overwhelms and could cause flooding downstream in your sewage treatment system or in your streets by water bubbling out of the manholes. That's because of in-flow and infiltration. There are illegal connections and down spouts from roofs or gutters going into your sanitary sewer system. All the water collects in the sanitary sewer system and goes toward your sewer treatment plant. That could flood it and take away your treatment capacity. That means we can't allow anymore development to take place in our area.
“We're not in that position yet. Our biggest challenge is combating the in-flow and infiltration, which takes away our capacity at the wastewater treatment plant. Sometimes it causes sewer manholes to overflow, which means that sewage will flow into the street. That's our biggest nightmare. I compare combatting in-flow and infiltration to chasing a ghost. It's an uphill battle but we're gaining on it and trying to minimize it.”
And the most favorite part of the job?
“Having unique challenges. Being confronted with a situation at the wastewater treatment or the water treatment plant or anywhere. How to figure out a solution. Something that's not typical. I enjoy that — getting into it, getting out of my office. That's when I get called in. When it's something unusual. If everything is normal, nobody bothers me. I like to go out with my men and face real life issues. Communicating with them. Bouncing ideas off each other.”
An Eye Toward the Future
Not one to sit still, Jacob has a laundry list of projects on his “To Do list.” They include:
• Upgrading all city signalized intersections to include ADA complying features, such as pedestrian crossings, access ramps and communication system to optimize travel routes and minimize traffic backups, as the city main routes are heavily congested where NYS Rt 211 and 17 M and several main county routes 11, 67, 49, 78 run through the city. Cost: $15 million.
• Installing new finished water pump station at City Water Treatment Plant. Cost: $3 million.
• Replacing WWTP screw pumps. Cost: $2 million. Grants to digitize and create GIS based mapping system for all underground utilities, water, wastewater and storm.
• Developing watershed protection ordinance. Have obtained a grant in the amount of $6 million for preserving watershed and minimize Harmful Algae Blooms.
• Due to escalating pricing of sludge disposal, will conduct a study to optimize solid contents in the sludge cake to save on hauling/transportation and disposal cost.
• Working on replacing some of the main water lines that feed the city, such as 20 high pressure water lines Cost: $3.5 million.
• Working to implement the mayor and the common council vision of making Middletown a regional water and wastewater services provider. Currently selling City WWTP effluent to CPV power generating facility providing cooling water needs, thus saving the fresh groundwater aquifer hundreds of thousands of gallons daily.
• Providing water and wastewater services to Amy's Kitchen, making the project that is miles away from the city feasible. This was done through close coordination and support of Mayor DeStefano and County Executive Neuhaus and respective city and Orange County governments.
• Finalizing $14 million energy performance contract, where the city has upgraded old HVAC equipment and purchased city streetlights from utility company and converting them to LED streetlights, installing solar panels at City WTP to provide green power for the city.
• Obtained a $10 million grant for Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) from the NYS Governor's office. Major chunk of this funding is being used to redesign all downtown parking lots to incorporate green infrastructure that will include porous pavement and other storm water quality improvement measures.
• Working closely with mayor and economics development office to direct some the DRI available funding toward major improvement to Downtown Streetscape and revival of long neglected buildings, such as former Woolworth Department Store Building.
• Working with CT Male Engineers on upgrading Middletown dams and bring them into compliance with current standards.
• Working with CPL and MHE in replacing two major sanitary sewer lines with both projects. Approximate cost: $9 million.
• Working with NV5 Consulting Engineers on evaluating and upgrading city storm sewer system under a grant from the governor's office under NY Rising program. Cost: $3.5 million
• Working with CPL to complete two major drainage projects under a grant through Congressman Maloney's office, to repair and armor brooks and create some detention pond. Brooks' banks were washed away during Tropical Storms Irene and Lee in late 2011.
• Working with CPL to upgrade two of city finished water storage tanks. Cost: $5 million
• Working with Orange County to develop a new raw source for the city and promote industrial and commercial development in and outside the city along NYS 17 M corridor.
When it comes time to hang up his hat, how would Jacob like to be remembered?
“As someone who has done something positive for the city in terms of quality of life; great water they can have in their faucet; having better roads; and all kinds of services for the residents. That would be the best thing.”
About the City
Located in the lower Hudson Valley, Middletown was first settled in 1760 and quickly grew into a thriving dairy farm center. With the arrival of the pioneering New York and Erie Railroad in 1843, Middletown continued to flourish and by 1888, it became a city. Hundreds of residents found employment in the growing railroad industry as well as at the sprawling Middletown State Hospital, with its advanced facilities at one time boasting over 100 buildings. “Middletown Revisited” documents the rich history of a city that has continued to grow over generations.
Marvin H. Cohen, a native of Middletown, is president and curator of the Historical Society of Middletown and the Wallkill Precinct and a member for more than 50 years of the Middletown Fire Department. The vintage images in this book have been selected from the extensive collections of the historical society.
The Images of America series celebrates the history of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country. Using archival photographs, each title presents the distinctive stories from the past that shape the character of the community today.
This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.
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