BRATTLEBORO — Longtime town employee Steve Barrett is leaving the Department of Public Works with a strong succession plan in place. This includes his current assistant Dan Tyler filling his role.
“I think the department is working really well,” Barrett said. “We’re really progressive and I want to keep going in that direction with new ideas moving forward.”
His last day as public works director is Dec. 18. That gives him time to provide Tyler with guidance before he takes over.
“Dan fits all the needs,” Barrett said. “He has experience with VTrans and contractors, and he has full experience to take on the job, so it’s excellent,” Barrett said. “It seemed like a good opportunity for me to retire, and plus, Dan has the talent. I’m leaving the department in good hands.”
Tyler started working with the town two-and-a-half years ago. Barrett said he encouraged him to come work for the department.
Barrett’s employment with the town begins about 47 years ago with the fire department. For 41 years, he’s been with the DPW.
In 1974, Barrett joined the fire department’s call force during his last year of high school. When he graduated the following year, he moved out of his parents’ house.
“I had $100 in my pocket,” he said. “I had my eyes wide open.”
Barrett recalled spending many hours responding to calls and alarms, side by side with full-time firefighters. He later got promoted to captain of the ladder team on the call force, traveling to fires throughout the tristate area. He also secured a scuba diving license and began going on water rescues.
At the same time, Barrett was experimenting with different career options. He worked for a bakery, post office, and construction and tree companies. He also found a seasonal job at the town water department.
In 1979, Barrett became full-time with the fire department. Within a year came an opening at the wastewater treatment plant. With his experience with the water department, he thought it would be a good career choice because he could continue with his love of firefighting by remaining on the call service.
After two years, Barrett went on to work on a water distribution crew. He described his foreman at the time, Jerry Remillard, who also was on the fire call service and was his predecessor as public works director, as a “hardworking, dedicated employee.”
“I just really enjoyed learning the trade from him,” Barrett said. “He was very instrumental in my transfer from the fire department to the DPW. I pretty much embraced that.”
A couple of years later, Barrett landed the position of general supervisor in the water department. Then he was promoted to utilities superintendent. In the early 1990s, he was promoted to a position where was he responsible for both the highway and utilities divisions. He became director of the DPW in 1996 after serving as interim director for a year.
Barrett said he learned so much over the years from working with attorneys, engineers, pipefitters, reporters, contractors and the public.
“I enjoyed going to work every day to face new challenges, you know,” he said, adding that none of that would have been possible without the support of his wife Helayne and daughters Jennifer and Heather. “They made really large sacrifices that allowed me to pursue my career.”
Barrett recounted many birthdays and holidays where he would have to leave the dinner table to attend to emergency situations. He said his family would have no problem with the sudden departures.
Barrett also always made himself accessible to the public, taking calls or chatting with people at the supermarket or elsewhere. He said he has a good rapport with Brattleboro residents and never had a department project up for a bond vote get defeated.
“I think there was a good trust and well-executed plans,” he said, calling support from taxpayers “awesome.”
Barrett reflected on sad times during his career such as when a fellow firefighter died in a fire on Canal Street in 1979; employees were injured and others died. He also said there were funny times like when a water line was ripped out of a house and water was going everywhere; a woman came outside lathered in soap and wrapped in a towel to scream at the crew whose members tried their hardest not to laugh as the soapsuds fell off her in a big splat.
“After, she was pretty good,” he said with a laugh.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said Barrett was involved in two wastewater plant upgrades, the construction of the town’s first water treatment plant, the planning and approval for the replacement of that water treatment plant, the construction of water storage tanks, the rerouting of traffic for the installation of the Park Place/Linden Street/Putney Road roundabout and the rerouting of traffic on Fairground Road as part of the high school renovation project. But perhaps most importantly, Elwell said, is Barrett’s leadership in responding to “numerous emergencies and countless winter storms.”
“In particular, Steve’s actions on the day of Tropical Storm Irene and throughout the days and weeks that followed enabled Brattleboro to recover more quickly and fully than many other communities,” Elwell said at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. “That was arguably Steve’s finest hour, as he put on full display his rare combination of technical knowledge, courage and communication skills.”
Barrett said he feels fortunate and lucky to have enjoyed both careers. Now, he wants to make memories with family and friends. He has a lot of interests such as fishing, hiking, hunting, skiing and motorcycles. He also wants to travel with his wife and complete some projects around the house.
When people retire, Barrett said, they start reconnecting with old friends because they have more time. A weekday season pass for skiing will allow him to reconnect with his buddy “Pedro.”
“I’m just going to embrace a whole new chapter in my life,” he said. “It’s just going to be awesome.”
During his tenure, the department replaced many bridges and retaining walls. Barrett expects those types of projects to continue along with sidewalks, which received additional investment from Representative Town Meeting. More flashing beacon lights also will be added at crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety.
Tyler “knows the needs,” Barrett said, crediting him with preparing 99 percent of last year’s budget.
“The town has a long-term financial plan and capital plan. I think that’s important,” Barrett said, adding that it’s something Elwell “brought to the table” to stabilize the town’s financial situation.
Barrett said Tyler is the right person to take the post as public works director.
“I think he has a calming demeanor,” Barrett said. “He doesn’t get excited. He listens to people. It’s very important for us to listen. You know, many times when we’re dealing with someone in the public, it’s a bad day. It could be a wastewater backup in their house, a water break that has caused a lot of damage, so he’s caring. He’s understanding. He’ll break it down and come up with good solutions. You need to be calculating and know what you’re going to do.”
Barrett said Tyler has a lot of respect for the department’s crews, which include employees whose ages range from 20s to 60s. Barrett said the young teach the old and vice versa.
In retirement, it might be difficult for Barrett not to want to fix something if it’s crooked or patch up a pothole if it catches his attention. He said he will have to train himself to be like any other resident and just notify the department if there’s potential for harm.
His plan is to stay in the area. He said he and his wife were brought up in Brattleboro and have lived in the same neighborhood for 50 years or more.
“We enjoy Brattleboro and the people,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”