If a tree falls on a street, trail, or sidewalk and needs to be cut up and hauled away, or snow falls and the roads need to be plowed or salted—the Kennett Square Borough Department of Public Works takes care of it. When a water or sewer main breaks, or potholes appear, or a streetlight is out—Public Works does the repairs. The Public Works crew is on the job when the rain falls and causes flooding, when grass and weeds grow and need cutting and pulling, and when the sun shines and the rain doesn’t fall and flowers in planters need watering. When municipal trash cans need to be emptied, leaf bags need to be collected, and fallen leaves and litter litter the streets—Public Works keeps the town looking tidy. When water meters need read, road markings need repainted, streets need to be closed for an event, and residents call with any number of inquiries—all of this, and much more, is accomplished by the multiskilled, experienced, and hardworking employees of this one department.

On any given day, the department is juggling five or ten different projects, says Director of Public Works Rob Moran. “It’s hard work, and it can be dangerous, but we have a great crew and we care about the residents we serve.”

“We have a great crew and we care about the residents we serve,” says Director of Public Works Rob Moran.

Many residents see familiar flashes of the crew’s neon yellow jackets around town but perhaps don’t appreciate the breadth and depth—and critical importance—of everything they do. Assistant Director of Public Works Denise Rodriguez grew up in the Borough and worked for the Borough for 11 years as a receptionist before joining the Public Works team two years ago. “I was like every other resident,” she says. “I didn’t realize what went into maintaining all of the things we take for granted.” She was drawn to what they do and joined the department to help make a difference.

Moran describes Rodriguez as his “right arm,” and together they manage the broad scope of work from their offices in the new Borough Hall at 600 South Broad Street. The Borough’s Public Works Department is split into the Streets Department, led by Foreman Steve “Monk” Melton and headquartered at the Public Works Garage at 500 Grant Way, and the Wastewater Treatment Plant on West South Street, with Chief Operator Jesus Lemus at the helm.

Assistant Director of Public Works Denise Rodriguez grew up in the Borough but, like most residents, “I didn’t realize what went into maintaining all of the things we take for granted,” she says.

When Moran was appointed Director two years ago, he says, “lots of work was being contracted out.” Recent changes he’s instituted mean that the Borough no longer incurs costs from outside contractors. Cultivating in-house resources to make necessary repairs has resulted in financial savings and increased efficiency—and self-sufficiency—for the Borough.

These changes have also empowered the team. Team members really wanted to learn, Moran says, and he was happy to teach them the skills they needed to tackle challenging and risky jobs like fixing water mains breaks. “We get down in the ditch, walk through it together, and once they’ve done it they realize they can do it—it’s powerful, and it’s transformed the whole department. They’ve done a wonderful job,” Moran says.

Steve “Monk” Melton, who was appointed Foreman of the Streets Department in 2022, received the Borough Employee of the Year award last month for his performance in this new role.

On the road to everywhere

There’s a comradery amongst the five and a half guys in the Streets Department that may account in part for the long tenure of many employees. “We don’t have a lot of turnover,” Melton says. Mark “Jake” Riggins has been on the crew for over 20 years, and Troy Stevenson for over 30. “Troy is the greatest ambassador we have,” Melton says with a grin. Jackson Armstrong, Brian Smith, and Dave Gilpin (who works part time, hence the “half”) round out the Streets Department. The team never knows what a day will bring, and the regular weekly and seasonal workload is frequently interrupted by one emergency or another. When this happens, their other responsibilities build up and the crew has to play catch up. If it’s frustrating for a resident that their leaf bags aren’t picked up on a certain day, they can rest assured the delay is even more frustrating for the Public Works team.

All Public Works employees are on call on a rotating schedule 24/7, 365 days a year. “And if it’s bad,” Moran says, “we all come in.” When, for example, a water main broke on Christmas day two years ago, the situation was urgent, the water pressure was as high as the stress levels, and the temperatures were below freezing. In situations like this, dedication, teamwork—and a sense of humor—are all important. “I love when it’s ten degrees,” Melton jokes. “If it’s really cold, the water feels relatively warm.”

The Public Works team was on call to repair a water main break—with significant water pressure and in freezing temperatures—on Christmas day last year. (Rob Moran, photo)

Melton, who was appointed Foreman of the Streets Department in 2022, received the Borough Employee of the Year award last month for his performance in this new role. “Steve is a wonderful asset and the award is very well deserved,” Moran says.

Melton is characteristically humble. “The award is for my guys,” he says. “I delegate and they do all the hard work.” Melton is a welder by trade and was also Kennett Fire Chief for many years. After 17 years working at Winterthur, he came to work for the Borough nearly 18 years ago. His favorite part of the job is getting to see and work alongside his crew every day. “We always conquer whatever we have to do,” he says.

The Streets Department of Kennett Square Borough’s Department of Public Works (l. to r.): Jackson Armstrong, Foreman Steve Melton, Mark “Jake” Riggins, Dave Gilpin, Brian Smith, and Troy Stevenson.

Water is life

If most of what the streets department does is unseen, that invisibility factor is even more marked for the four-man Wastewater Treatment Plant team. Lemus, along with operator/mechanics Jon Rockwell, Alejandro Zarate-Leon, and Erik Nunez, maintain the two different wells that supply the Borough with water and the entire infrastructure that carries water to every home and business in the Borough.

“They also oversee the Borough-owned sewer plant,” Moran says. “What comes in as sewer goes through an amazing process so you end up with crystal-clear clean water and topsoil.” Moran is excited about the young men on this team and the careers they’re building as they gain the necessary licenses and valuable and marketable skills.

While residents will often see the familiar Public Works vehicles around town, many don’t realize everything that crew members take care of, all year round.

Collaborating to make Kennett Kennett

Public Works also supports Kennett Collaborative in many of the organization’s programs and events that make Kennett Square such a great place to live and visit. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has deep roots in the community. In 1986, the Borough supported the founding of the nonprofit now called Kennett Collaborative—in part to implement the kinds of community-building events that helped revitalize the town and put Kennett Square on the map.

“People often confuse us with the Borough, but we are an independent nonprofit organization,” says Kennett Collaborative Executive Director Daniel Embree. “I suspect the confusion stems in part from the great working relationship we’ve had over the years with Borough staff. The members of the Public Works Department truly are our unsung heroes.”

The Public Works crew and Kennett Collaborative work together every year to put up the beloved town Christmas tree.

Public Works is a vital partner in nearly every Kennett Collaborative program and event, Embree explains. “Every year, for example, Kennett Collaborative purchases the large town Christmas tree and lights, and the Public Works Department puts up the tree. We depend on Public Works to water the beautiful planters that are part of our Kennett Blooms program every spring and summer. We couldn’t hold our Third Thursday on State Street events, or Kennett Summerfest, or the Memorial Day and Holiday Light parades, without Public Works shutting down the streets. Kennett Collaborative plans, implements, and fundraises for these events, including raising funds to pay the Borough for some of the Public Works costs for these events, but we couldn’t do any of it without the help and expertise of the Public Works team.”

“Because much of what we do, and much of what Public Works does, is behind the scenes, many people don’t understand who is who and who is responsible for what—and how we’re funded.” It’s important for the community, and for taxpayers in particular, to understand this relationship, Embree says.

Of the community, for the community

The department’s deep roots in the community contribute to the pride and satisfaction they find in their work. “I like doing what I do for my town,” says Melton, who was born and raised in Kennett Square. Moran is a lifelong area resident and came to his current position from 27 years as Facilities Manager for KCSD. “I already had a working relationship with these guys, and it’s just gotten better,” he says. His wife grew up in Kennett Square. “So I hear about it if I mess up,” he says with a laugh.

Rodriguez, who also grew up in Kennett Square, says she always focuses on what’s best for the residents and how they would feel about any changes or improvements the department proposes. When Rodriguez, Moran, and Melton lay out plans for improvements in the Borough, the process always involves dialoguing with residents and receiving and incorporating their feedback.

A backhoe is one of the pieces of heavy equipment the Public Works Street Department operates and maintains from their garage facility on Grant Way.

“People don’t realize what’s under their feet that we’re trying to maintain,” Moran says, as he describes the ongoing work of patching and repairing ageing infrastructure—some of it over 100 years old. As with many things, people generally don’t notice until there’s a problem. “We don’t typically hear atta boys,” Moran says. While they try to avoid social media and stay focused on their work, it can be discouraging to hear how quickly a question on Facebook can incite negativity—and disseminate false information.

Rodriguez and Moran both enjoy talking with residents and urge people to call the office with any questions or concerns. “No question is silly,” Rodriguez says. “If you see something, tell us. We can’t fix it if we don’t know about it.”

The Department of Public Works office is open Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 4:30pm (610.444.6020  ext. 105)

Photos by Dylan Francis