By LeAnn R. Ralph
ELK MOUND — When Terry Stamm started working in Elk Mound as the chief of police on January 1, 1976, he never thought he would be working in the village for the next 39 years.
And since he started out as the police chief, he also never thought he would end up as the director of public works.
Stamm officially retired in December as Elk Mound’s director of public works, although he had been working toward that goal for two years providing training for the new director of public works, Mark Levra.
All those years ago, at the same time Stamm was working as the police chief in Elk Mound, he worked as the assistant superintendent for the utilities.
Stamm is originally from Modena in Buffalo County. He attended the police academy in Eau Claire and graduated in 1976.
“At that time, the superintendent was getting ready to retire. They asked me if I wanted to stay as police chief or did I want to go as the director of public works, a new position,” he said.
Stamm worked as the police chief for ten years.
“In my time as police chief, I’d had five deceased people through domestics, shootings, car accidents. I had five in the first six years. I figured I’d seen enough. The car accident was a personal friend. I responded, and he died several minutes after I got there. I thought I’d seen enough of that. I had an interest in the other area, though. I had a strong interest in the public works,” Stamm said.
“I helped train the new police chief, and then I changed roles and became the director of public works,” he said.
In one of those interesting turn of events that seem to occur from time to time, the new police chief Stamm trained was Mike Tietz. The same Mike Tietz who is now working in Elk Mound again as the assistant police chief after retiring from the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department.
“It was interesting times. We had a lot of things going on in the 1970s. Then there was the tornado in 1980. It was big. I slept on this table (in the meeting room of the village hall) for two nights because we didn’t have any communications. The power was out. I wanted people to have someplace to come to if they had an emergency. It worked out well. We finally got some generators into town,” Stamm said.
Unlike today, when people are required to obtain different kinds of training and certifications to do certain jobs, 40 years ago, village board members took on much of the work in the village themselves.
So, as you might imagine, the reason that the Elk Mound Village Board decided to hire a director of public works is — they were getting tired.
“At that time, we had an old truck. The board members had been doing the work, and they just got tired of it. They were getting so many complaints because they couldn’t be consistent. They couldn’t come and plow (snow) until they got home at night from work. That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. There were potholes eight and nine inches deep on University Street. They said we needed to hire somebody,” Stamm said.
He has fond memories — well, maybe not quite so fond — of the old truck that was in service then.
“That truck was so old and broken down, at times, I had to have the clerk drive it, and I would throw the sand out,” Stamm recalled.
The department of public works started out with one full-time employee and one half-time employee. Now the department has three full-time employees.
“There were no computers then. All the work had to be done by hand. I’d stay late at night to write the police reports. I didn’t have time during the day because we’d be doing the water and sewer work at the same time because I was the assistant superintendent,” he said.
“The superintendent was 80 years old. The assistant to him was 76 years old. And the guy running the dump was 90 years old. At that time, all the village employees were between 64 and 90 years old. And the lady who collected all of the bills was 70-something,” Stamm said.
Which is to say that Elk Mound evidently has a long tradition of employees sticking around for quite a while.
“So much of it was that I was fortunate to be surrounded by good people. Rex and Len. Everybody kids about it. But very seldom do you have a public works department where that many people have been there for 25 years or more in their positions so they’ve got the experience. You don’t have to spend a lot of time telling them what to do. They know what needs to be done. They know all the valves. All the manholes. Even plowing. It’s the continuity and building the experience,” Stamm said.
“This is the type of job that’s seven days a week. People can kid all they want to about government employees. I’ve always told (village) board members, ‘don’t tell me what day you are coming in. Just come. And I will show you what work we have to do that day. And why we have to do it.’ There are all the requirements (state and federal law), and then there’s just a good maintenance program,” he said.
Serving as a director of public works in a small town is very different than working in a larger city. In a bigger municipality, there is a parks and recreation department, a street department, a water department, a wastewater department.
In a small town — there is only one department that handles everything.
“Our theme became that the unexpected is the expected. That’s what makes the job so that (very few) people want it. There have been several family things over the years that I had to leave in the middle of. Broken water main. A collapsed sewer line. A snowstorm coming. In return, I got the cooperation of the board and the people (who live in Elk Mound),” Stamm said.
“I used to try to tell people what all this job involved. Then I gave up and put the challenge the other way. If you want to know something, you come and see me. If I don’t show you to your satisfaction, then you can take it to the village board. There have been very few (complaints) over the years, after I developed a program,” he said.
Stamm noted that he has spent a significant number of hours writing policies for Elk Mound’s department of public works.
“What some people don’t understand is that the public works business is so broad-based for their normal functions. They drive on the streets. They drink the water. They use the restroom. They go to the park. Then for solid waste, they have garbage. So almost everything we do affects almost everybody who is living in the village, and even those who live outside the village,” Stamm said.
“If it were just in the parks department, or the streets department, or a wastewater operation, that’s important and that’s a lot. But a public works person in a small town is expected to be versed in all of those areas and more. It’s complicated. And it has gotten more complicated,” he said.
Consider all of the changes in state and federal laws.
The DNR’s requirement for cross connection inspections is a good example.
Cross connection inspections require all houses and businesses in a municipality to be inspected to make sure there are no situations where water could siphon back into the municipal water supply and contaminate the entire system.
“There have been several of those kinds of changes over the years. New phosphorus rules, too. I kept track until I got to 122 changes, after about 15 years, and then I stopped keeping track. Other people have those things in their jobs too. But those were massive programs that have to be kept up, and you have to keep track of it, because you’re going to be audited on those things,” Stamm said.
Whether you live in a city or a village or out in the country here in Wisconsin — you know all about snowy roads and driveways.
“Snow removal is probably one of the biggest areas that people never agree on. What’s a good snow removal program. They want to know how come we don’t rotate the streets (because everyone wants to be plowed out first). To some degree we can. But on Sunday, we take care of the churches. During the week, we take care of the schools. We’ve got the solid waste site. We will get to all of it eventually,” Stamm said.
People sometimes also want to know why the village needs three trucks and three employees.
With three plow trucks, “we divide up (the village). Len, you take this area. Rex, you take this area. And I’ll take this area … most people with common sense, when you sit down and talk to them about it, they don’t even want to discuss it anymore. They just say, ‘you take care of it,’” Stamm said.
Being a director of public works is like being a doctor or a farmer when it comes to time and dedication.
“It needs to be someone who is not afraid to put in the hours, someone who does not mind if their personal life is interrupted. Plus, it has to be someone who can teach and train others. Certain people are good at that, and some people are not,” Stamm said.
“The team concept has been the key to success over the last 39 years. We had a lot of good people. A lot of teamwork. And we’ve been able to handle issues … everybody giving and taking,” he said.
But there is also another dimension to public works.
“The other big thing we learned is — we make a decision to go in one direction, but we also learned that we’re going to be willing to change if this isn’t going to work. In a lot of cases, we had to change as we went. And that’s what made it work. People agreeing to that. We need to make this change to make it better. Or sometimes we got lucky, and it went right the first time,” Stamm said.
“We’ve been able to keep good people in place. Pat (village clerk-treasurer) has been here over 30 years. I’ve been here over 30 years. Len and Rex have each been here for 25. And Andy (Peterson, village president) grew up here. He understands the community. These are the things I look back on and treasure,” he said.
Stamm said he gives a ton of credit to outside agencies as well, such as the Dunn County Highway Department, Dunn County Sheriff’s Department and the Elk Mound school district for their willingness to work with the village.
Elk Mound’s mechanical wastewater treatment plant was built in 1993.
In 1999, Elk Mound won first place in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act Recognition Awards for a small advanced plant.
“That was the big one. Upgrading the plant is a major undertaking. It was over $1 million. That’s a chunk of change for a village like Elk Mound. And with it came new procedures, new regulations and new maintenance. The maintenance alone was quite a lot,” Stamm said.
The mechanical wastewater treatment plant also added to Stamm’s responsibilities — and to the amount of knowledge he needed to know to make it work.
“From 1993 to 1999, we developed some good programs, and then we won the (EPA’s) national award. There were a lot of people who put a lot of hard work into that. Rex. Pat. Coordinating to get through all of that. It was rough for three or four years getting all of the (wastewater) treatment down. By 1997, we had it going pretty good … it’s people that make it work,” Stamm said.
The year Elk Mound’s wastewater treatment plant was built was a cold winter. The construction crews worked through the winter to finish the construction, he recalled.
Bringing a new sewer plant on-line is a big job, Stamm said.
“There’s text book. And there’s the reality. Here’s how it is supposed to work — here is how it really works. Sometimes it does work according to the textbook. For us it didn’t work too well the first two years,” he said.
Eventually all of the hard work paid off when Elk Mound was recognized by the EPA.
Stamm says he will miss the people he worked with in Elk Mound.
And the excitement.
“If a water main breaks, there’s always a certain rush. It’s a challenge. That’s what made it never boring. Everything was different. Sometimes there’s a natural gas main next to the broken water main. And there’s the streets and the roads,” he said.
“How understanding the people could be during some tough times — that’s what really amazed me. The police department. Utilities. It always amazed me how decent people could be under difficult circumstances,” Stamm said.
As for what’s next, Stamm may have retired from being the Elk Mound director of public works, but he is not retired in the traditional sense of the word.
Instead of working in Elk Mound all day, he now drives to other municipalities for Commercial Testing out of Colfax, collecting water and wastewater samples.
“It has been a distinct pleasure to work for the Village of Elk Mound for those 39 years. It wasn’t all easy. But in the end, I think we had some great accomplishments and kept the services to (everyone’s) liking,” Stamm said.
“I was going to stay a few years (at the beginning), get the experience and move on. But then I saw what the community had invested in me, and I liked the people I worked with,” he said.