Inside the most expensive city building built in years, the work areas are furnished with picnic tables, cement floors and corrugated steel ceilings.
But to the employees who used to work in crumbling buildings with broken windows covered in plywood or, even worse, under a bridge without even a portable bathroom, the $20 million public works complex more than lives up to its half-in-jest nickname of “the Taj Mahal.”
“You don’t appreciate what you’re seeing here because you were never in the old building,” Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy said, adding ruefully, “The old building was an OSHA-free zone.”
The old workplace had a shelf with bottles of water on it so that employees could douse themselves if they touched one of the caustic chemicals they use. Now there are eye wash stations and showers.
Every barrel of potential pollution, from car fluids to chemicals, sits in a frame designed to contain any leaks. There are folders on the wall detailing how to clean up from any spill. Before, there was nothing; employees had to call supervisors in the hopes of finding someone who happened to know how to clean up a particular chemical. Now they can simply grab the nearest folder.
“We’re protecting the site,” Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said, detailing how the city spent years removing toxins from the ground before constructing the new building. “It cost $5 million to pull it out of the site. We want to keep it clean.”
Employees love the new complex. But some taxpayers have questioned whether the city should have borrowed $25.5 million — including cleanup costs — when Schenectady had to cut its work force by 10 percent and can’t even afford to fix sidewalks during road paving this year.
Olsen argued repeatedly that the complex would save the city money.
The main savings come from benefits of storing most of the city’s vehicle fleet in heated garages.
For example, one vehicle, a machine that cleans out clogged and broken sewer pipes, saves the city hours of overtime each night it’s used because it can be parked in a heated facility.
“There’s water in that vehicle to vacuum out and jet water into the sewer lines,” Olsen said. “You’d have to winterize it every time you use it.”
The process took about two hours each time, he said, adding hours to the cost of fixing emergency sewer breaks. Workers had no choice but to drain the water every time they used it because they couldn’t fit the truck into any heated city garage and the water would damage the machine if it froze.
Other machines that use buckets to reach trees and traffic lights had to sit outdoors for hours with the heat blasting before they could be used because the controls in the bucket would freeze in the cold, signal control supervisor John Coluccio said.
“It was terrible,” he said. “That was always so frustrating.”
Plow drivers are also getting less overtime now because they can set up their trucks and load salt during regular working hours. When the plows were parked outside, salt would freeze into a solid rock, so they had to load it just before they started plowing.
“We get out an hour faster in a storm now,” Olsen said. “And it saves money, it saves overtime.”
The garages in the complex are heated to 50 degrees, just enough to keep fluids and salt from freezing. The city installed infrared heat, which is far more efficient in large buildings, Olsen said.
The other main source of savings in the new complex is the controversial body shop. The City Council agreed only to a one-year trial after resident Vince Riggi, a body shop mechanic, strongly advised them that they would never make money on it.
Riggi, who is now running for City Council on the new Alliance Party line, is still skeptical about the body shop.
But Olsen and body shop manager Michael McNulty said that with body shop work, they’ve managed to postpone the replacement of several trucks that cost more than $100,000 each.
A $110,000 roll-off truck would have needed to be replaced this year if workers hadn’t been able to sandblast off all of the rust before it ate through the last of the steel, Olsen said.
Workers baked on new paint in a room large enough for the city’s biggest vehicles that heats to 150 degrees to set the paint.
A 6-year-old recycling truck that cost more than $100,000 was also sandblasted to avoid replacement.
“This was close to being shot,” Olsen said. “Rust was forming on the fuel tanks. The light assemblies were starting to rot. Probably would’ve lasted another two years.”
Then, he said, rust would have eaten holes into the fuel tank or the lights would have fallen out, leaving the vehicle unable to pass inspection.
It took city workers about 50 hours to sandblast off all of the rust and repaint it. The materials cost $1,884. With labor, Olsen figured the entire project cost less than $4,000.
“It will last 12 years,” he said.
Riggi doubts that.
“In my experience, in doing this for 50 years, it’s not going to last eight years. Maybe two or three,” he said. “Unless you replace the metal, when it’s really pitted and deep it’s not going to last. In my estimation, that’s a stopgap measure.”
He said the best test will be to examine the sandblasted vehicles each year to see whether they truly last longer.
Five trucks have been sandblasted and repainted so far. Workers plan to do 12 more, focusing on vehicles that are six to seven years old and in good mechanical condition. Rust has already eaten holes in equipment older than seven years, and the cost of fabricating steel for those vehicles might be too much to make the process worthwhile.
But newer equipment will last twice as long, Olsen said.
“We’ll get 16 years rather than eight out of each piece,” he said.