by Kym Byrnes, photography by Walter P. Calahan
Managing Carroll County’s Public Works programs is no small feat – the department employs hundreds of people and houses nine bureaus (Airport, Building Construction, Engineering, Facilities, Fleet Management/Warehouse Operations, Permits and Inspections, Roads Operations, Solid Waste, and Utilities). With three years under his belt as the department’s director, Jeff Castonguay is focused on improving communications between the department and citizens, and in upgrading technology and systems to improve efficiencies. A father, husband, softball coach and cancer survivor, Castonguay said that it’s an 18-speed Raleigh bicycle from his childhood that has motivated him to get to where he is today.
In a nutshell, what does your job entail?
A little bit of everything. Public Works’ responsibility is to build and maintain a very complex county infrastructure system while providing dependable, high-quality and responsive service to the residents of Carroll County. Keep it running and keep it clean. With management oversight of nine bureaus plus transportation, including over 300 staff, every day is different and the needs change from minute to minute. While deputy directors and bureau chiefs oversee the day-to-day operations, any issue, concern, problem, or project that catches the eye of a commissioner needs to be on my radar so I may react properly when questions arise. Ultimately, my charge is to implement the commissioners’ directives while maintaining operations within our financial boundaries and keeping customer service at the highest level possible.
What other job and life experiences prepared you for this position? What was appealing to you about this position?
I love a challenge. It all started as a teenager when my father asked if I wanted a new bicycle, and my answer of: Yes! Which led to: When you can afford it, you can buy it. The lesson learned is: If you want something, you have to work hard to get it. In my entire work history, from delivering newspapers at 13 and lead cook of a hotel kitchen at age 15, to overseeing 62 miles of the Massachusetts Turnpike’s construction projects and managing engineering consulting offices in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. and Philadelphia areas, I always pushed forward as if that 18-speed Raleigh bicycle was sitting in a window waiting for me (which I still ride today). My position as director is the ultimate carrot at the end of the stick waiting for me each and every day. I get to be part of a wonder team of hard-working men and women who make Carroll County a better place to live every day.
What do you find cool, fun, interesting about your job?
Have you ever taken something apart to see what makes it tick? I get to see this time and time again. For example, the Bureau of Utilities was performing regular maintenance on micro-fiber membranes, which can remove organisms smaller than a virus from our water. When they pulled one set of membranes out of the tank, you understood what made that part of the process tick. It is exciting to use my experience in soil and asphalt to collaborate with staff. This fusion of skills and abilities allows us to think outside of the box to solve issues with little to no additional funding.
And what part of the job is not so fun? Which department that you oversee is the most complex to manage?
Bureau of Roads is the most complex of all of the bureaus. Yes, it is the largest bureau in the county with the most pieces of equipment, but in addition they are at the forefront of our customer interaction, every day. Our citizens have become more and more mobile over the past decades and they expect the roads to be open, clear, smooth and free from obstacles, every minute of the day. Nobody is happy during winter weather events. Someone will always be at the end of one of our 60+ routes.
Environmental restrictions will continue to increase, resulting in challenges. Would it be easier to repair or resurface a roadway at night? Yes. Do our citizens want to be woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of a milling machine and roller? No. Our staff strives for the highest quality of work, but — like everyone else — we are not perfect. These men and women work all hours of the day, in all types of weather, involving long, continuous hours in dangerous conditions, to keep the roadways open. Keep in mind: Many times on the roadway, the only thing between our staff and a car driving by at 40-50 mph is a line of rubber cones. While we strive for five stars for customer service, it is a delicate balance of trying to accomplish many projects while keeping … citizens happy with the end product.
What challenges does this job present and how do you deal with the big challenges thrown your way?
The challenges we face today revolve around competing priorities when it comes to funding, both within the department and county government. Everyone wants smooth roads, water and sewer at the lowest cost, trash picked up, trees trimmed, immediate inspections, and many other services, but the pot of money to accomplish these activities and our ability to meet high expectations becomes a balancing act. Working closely with my peers across the country sharing ideas and best practices in all aspects of public works has a great time saver.
How much does technology impact the tasks you oversee?
This is a challenge, and at this point, we don’t use technology at the level I would like. Many of our current process are still hand-written, with some tracking in simple spreadsheets. The initial investment of hardware and software, whether tracking assets or problem calls, comes at a cost outside of our yearly allotted budget. We are working with our IT department to implement a program where any citizen in the county can open up an app or click a button on our website to report an issue. This program internally tracks the staff responsible and next steps. In the long run, technology will help prioritize and maintain our systems in a more efficient way.
Anything about this job that still surprises you?
The resiliency of our staff is always amazing. Day in and day out, our staff performs work that many would find exhausting. We ask staff to work in all types of weather, days, nights, holidays, and weekends, away from their family and friends, to serve the citizens of this county. And they show up, selflessly, every time. They love their county and the people that they serve. They are truly first responders!
What does life look like for you when you’re not on the clock?
Spending time with my family is always top priority. My wife and I spend a lot of time keeping our kids engaged in the community with volunteering and sports. I am currently the president and coach of the Westminster Jaycees Girls Softball League, coaching both slow- and fast-pitch teams which play in spring, summer and fall. I assist when needed for our kids’ 4-H events and school activities. It is always fun to build something needed for a play or an event where they are participating. For years I volunteered, and still help when time allows, with the American Cancer Society. As a cancer survivor, it is key for me to give back to those who volunteered their time so I can be here for this great county today.