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City employee retires from department of public works after 27 years
The city worker gets out of his warm bed, dresses quickly and heads into the frosty night. He arrives at the scene of the water main break, assesses the problem, locates the site of the break and calls in his crew. Together, they clamp the broken water main using a vactor (a machine with a vacuum that can also dig underground), and later replace the damaged pipe.
That was one of a handful of bad days for Steve Heidt, assistant director of public works, who is retiring on Dec. 30 after 27 years with the City of Northville. Over those years, there have been hundreds of water main breaks, during all seasons. He’s been called in after hours to clean up the damage from savage storms that tackled trees.
The good days are more common. He says his crew is one of the best parts of the job because they help him get work done and are like a second family to him: joking and hassling each other.
“He is my ‘go-to’ guy,” said Jim Gallogly, director of Public Works. “He was the front line in getting the work done while supervising eight people. He will be sorely missed.”
Heidt always liked to make repairs. After graduating from South Lyon High School, he got a job at the former McDonald Ford dealership in Northville. He learned how to fix cars from a mechanic who became his mentor.
He moved to Livonia and took a job with the city of Northville on Aug. 10, 1987. He likes being outdoors and the variety of work. He’s the sexton of the cemetery, locating the plots where people have purchased graves, and making sure the burial arrangements are done on time. He oversees the cold patching, pavement markings, shoulder grading and routine maintenance of roads. He leads the crew in setting up and taking down holiday decorations. And he fixes sewer breaks, which now occur less frequently due to better maintenance.
One year, Heidt had his picture taken while repairing the glass globe on the clock in town square. There’s an unwritten policy that each time a city employee’s picture appears in the paper, they must bring in doughnuts for the staff. That picture ran in the Northville Record more than six times that year, but he stopped buying doughnuts after the second or third time.
Heidt thrives on challenges. When faced with a problem, he studies it, then applies a solution either manually or mechanically; repeating the process until the problem is resolved. One of the biggest problems was learning how to manage the water flow between the reservoir and water tower to keep the balance just right during the summer watering season.
To avoid extra costs when the city of Detroit started charging a surcharge during times of peak usage, Heidt was a key player in figuring out how to adjust the water flow – filling the 450,000 gallon water tower in the late evening and early morning hours from the city’s 500,000 gallon reservoir, and not filling the water tower during the day. He worked with control engineers Kennedy Industries to set up a new computerized control system, which has saved the city a substantial amount on its water bill over the years.
Heidt and his crew also look for lead pipes during maintenance and replace them – important maintenance for an older town like Northville.
“Maintenance is big to me,” he said. “You have to do preventive maintenance or it will fail. We go over the snow plow machines before and after every big storm to make sure everything is tight and right – so there won’t be any leaks. We need to keep them working right.”
When he was promoted to his current position in 2004, he also became more careful about the safety of those working for him, setting up work sites to prevent accidents. “You don’t want a hole being dug to fix a sewer caving in on a guy.
“I felt like I was invincible when I was younger,” said Heidt. “I’m a lot more cautious now,”
What advice would he give someone just starting out in public works? “Be thorough, listen and pay attention. Take your time and do it right the first time.” He has enjoyed working, noting, “The city has been good to me.”
As a retiree, he plans to balance work and relaxation. He will “work” on his hobbies, chiefly drag racing as well as rebuilding race car engines. His son Cody, a supervisor at the Northville Parks & Recreation Dept., often joins him in these pursuits. This winter, you’ll find Heidt in Florida until the last snowflake has melted in Michigan.