Upon Retirement, DPW’s Warrington Reflects on 27 Years

Richard Warrington at his desk in Bedford's Department of Public Works
Richard Warrington at his desk in Bedford’s Department of Public Works

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

At the end of his 27 year tenure as the head of the Department of Public Works, Director Rich Warrington spoke with The Bedford Citizen about his work experiences before coming to Bedford, the distance the town has come in the last quarter century, some of today’s issues, and what he plans to do in the next chapter of his life.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Before coming to Bedford [as the Director of Public Works], I was the Superintendent of Public Works and the City Engineer in Melrose. Proposition 2 ½ hit them hard so they combined the two positions.  I spent a couple of years there and before that I was in Winchester for four years—I ran the Water and Sewer Division—and before that I was with a private consulting firm for 8 or 9 years, 1972 to 1980.

My consulting experience was water treatment, water mains, sewage treatment plants, industrial waste issues. One of my first projects in consulting was designing the fish ladder on the new Charles River Dam [so the fish could climb up to spawn]. It was a very interesting first project—a very large project. I had a small part of it. We did some very interesting hydraulic arrangements and unique systems to make the flow work against any tide and so on.

The Army Corps of Engineers contracted with the firm I was in to build the dam. The unique thing about the Charles River Dam is that it has really good locks— you can let big vessels and small vessels out—and it has six of the biggest pumps you have ever seen in your life. The impellors, below the big diesel engines, weigh 37,000 pounds each.  These six pumps can essentially pump the Charles River [during] any high tide or [other flood] event to maintain the [desired] height of the pool [behind the dam.]

What were some of the early issues you dealt when you first came to Bedford as the DPW director?

One of the most major things I’ve been involved with here is helping Bedford become the first community to join the water system since the MWRA was formed. That was in 1990. As a result of being the first to join [the established group] there was no set process, so we were breaking new ground all the way.

[My time as Director of the DPW] has been a very active time in Bedford’s development. We were a town that was begging for water. We’d sit in the shop, looking at the level gauges for the water tanks on a hot summer night, wondering if they were going to refill for the morning [when there’s a heavy demand for water.] We had water moratoriums. We had sewer moratoriums…. We kept thinking, “How are we going to keep this thing going?”

I remember the water moratorium: Café Luigi was moving to Bedford and there was a little diner [in that location] but Luigi’s took the little diner and another shop next to it, as I remember. And they wanted to build a restaurant but the historical use of water there wouldn’t allow for them to do that—they couldn’t stay within that [same level of use.] So we worked with them and we got water-saving bathroom fixtures put in, we had water-saving dishwashers put in— state-of –the-art everything. We were able to manipulate the numbers so that in the end, their bigger restaurant would use the same or less water than that little, half-sized diner that was there before.

Twenty years ago the MWRA was delivering 300 million gallons a day [to member communities] but now through conservation efforts, it’s fallen below 200 million so the advisory board is actually encouraging towns to apply [to hook up to the system.]

Putting in the twenty miles of new sewer lines in East Bedford was another big project I dealt with early on. We had five major contracts out at once [that included] Old Billerica Road, Old Stagecoach, Robinson, Wilson, Hemlock, Dunelm. In two years we put twenty miles of sewers in the ground and we re-paved twenty miles of road.

What’s changed over the years that bears noting?

Bedford’s population isn’t much different than it was 27 years ago but it’s different: we had fewer houses [then] but the family sizes were bigger. The families matured and they moved out and they were replaced with many more homes [with fewer occupants.] There were a lot of new sub-divisions built through this period.

With this transition came a change of expectations— an increased level of expectations. That’s been a big challenge through the years: addressing that level of service that folks were looking for. People move from a community that has sidewalks and curbstones and streetlights and they expected all the above and if they didn’t have it, why not? So that’s been a big challenge: addressing those needs and doing it within a budget and within the labor force that we had [and the impact it had] on our general ability to do projects.

It isn’t something you can fight. It’s the temperament of the community. It’s to be expected that things change. We all understand that. The hard thing is having your thumb on the temperature [of the town.] It takes time to get your services adjusted to need. One thing I have learned is, talking to many other directors of public works over the years, what’s important in one town could be bottom of the list in another town. You really have to have a handle on what the community needs and what the expectations are. That’s been a major part of our effort here. You want to provide the services, you want to do it as economically as possible, and you want to do it in the most caring and equitable way—and sometimes that’s not easy.

What issues do you see as important now and in the immediate future?

One of the big things is, once you build something, you have to take care of it. We can’t fall into the trap [of building something and then not funding] the staffing and the maintenance.  Ten years after you build something, major facilities have to be renovated, otherwise the system breaks down. Not many people have the feel for that.

We try very hard to maintain what we have so that we can provide [the desired] services. The big button, obviously, in town from the last budgetary process was equipment and vehicles. We have a lot of money invested in some very specific and needed equipment and in order to keep that up, we have to fund that properly.

The same thing with roads. We had a very detailed pavement management program to get back on track with our roads and it showed what we should be spending [to maintain and improve the quality.] All of a sudden it comes time to fund it and an inadequate amount is there.

But that’s what the capital asset management program the Town is working on now will [help with.] It’s going to be much more useful every year it’s utilized. The first important feature of the capital asset management plan is to simply indicate to the residents, the committees, and the boards how much we actually have at stake here— and it’s hundreds of millions of dollars of stuff. We have millions of dollars of water mains, valves, fire hydrants, treatment centers, sewers pumps—we have 30 sewage pumping stations, all the way from a sub-division-sized one to one across the street [from the DPW building] that’s a multi-million dollar facility.

What’s the status of Bedford’s infrastructure now?

Maintenance is our job. It’s hard to sell, but that’s our job. We know what’s underground and we know the condition of what’s underground.

I feel good about the condition of things but there’s still ground to cover and programs to continue.

Looking back from this perspective at the end of your career in Bedford, how would you summarize your experience here?

“We’ve received incredible support over the years from the Selectmen, Town Manager, and the committees. We’ve had our little spats but that’s growing pains, so to speak, and that’s all part of adjusting to the needs of the community. We feel it—we see it—before [anyone else does.] It’s our job to tell [the committees] we need more money to provide more services to address the needs of the community. We get the calls, we see the condition of things, we see things coming and we know what’s going to happen if we don’t address it.

So if we get a little emotional once in a while about equipment and roads and water and sewer systems, that’s what our job is but I would say that—over the years, of all the towns around us—I can’t think of a town that’s provided as much support back to the DPW as Bedford has.

It’s a small town. We always look at Bedford as two towns: it’s the “8- to- 5” town when we have roughly 25,000 people working here, commuting in and out; and then you have the “weekend town”: the nice, small-town character, 14,000 person town we see at Bedford Day and other weekend functions.

It’s just a unique town—like all towns are unique—but I think Bedford is unique in a very nice way.

I haven’t regretted living and working in the same town. There’ve been some interesting times; shopping locally can be an intriguing event, when somebody catches you and lets you know what their problem is. But, overall, that’s been a non-issue, in the grand scheme of things. With the exception of a few little quirky things, it’s been positive.  It’s been a pleasure working here. The time went fast—it’s scary how fast it went.

What’s next for you?  

I’m going to take a month off entirely. I want to clear my head and see what I want to do. I really feel like I want to do something and whether it’s private consulting [or something else], I just want to keep the avenues open. I don’t want to stop altogether. I don’t think I want to work full-time but I would like to do something to stay active.

I love fishing and stuff like that but you can’t fish 365 days a year. It’s an escape –and it’s a really great escape when you’re working all the time but when you’re not working, that’s different.

Keep our journalism strong! Support The Citizen Journalism Fund today. Contact The Bedford Citizen: editor@thebedfordcitizen.org or 781-325-8606

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