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Even in winter, Willmar Public Works has plenty to do

Erica Dischino / Tribune Gary Manzer, Willmar Public Works Superintendent, describes the use of a municipal vehicle used to clear sidewalks during the winter. 1 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Traffic signs are stacked in the Public Works garage in Willmar. Replacing signs is one of the maintenance tasks the department has been able to focus on this winter.2 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Gary Manzer, Willmar Public Works Superintendent, stands Monday next to a newly installed parallelogram lift in the Public Works garage in Willmar. Besides working on police vehicles, the new lift allows the department’s mechanics to work on snowplow trucks without having to remove the plow equipment or the tires. 3 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Gary Manzer, Public Works Superintendent, holds a traffic sign Monday in the Public Works garage in Willmar. This winter Public Works crew members have been able to focus on more internal upkeep projects since there was less snow compared to previous winters. 4 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune Tools hang in the Public Works garage in Willmar where crew members this winter have had time to focus on more internal upkeep projects in the shop, including installation of newly constructed tool shelves and a paint job 5 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune One of the Willmar city plow trucks is shown Monday in the Public Works garage parking lot.6 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune A salt and sand mixture used to treat Willmar streets is shown Monday. The Willmar Public Works Department has been trying a new technique in which the mixture is first wetted to better activate the salt.7 / 8
Erica Dischino / Tribune The Willmar Public Works garage has gotten a facelift this winter with new shelves, new paint and even a long-lost metal cutout of the state of Minnesota. 8 / 8

WILLMAR — It has been a busy winter at the Willmar Public Works garage as the 22-member crew has been installing new equipment, cleaning in and around the maintenance garage, replacing signs, painting picnic tables and plowing snow as weather conditions demand.

"There is always something to do," said Public Works Superintendent Gary Manzer, a 35-year veteran of the department. Manzer started in his new role in April.

This winter has been good to the public works crew, since the lack of multiple heavy snowfalls has given them a chance to focus on other projects. The shop itself has gotten a needed facelift, with newly constructed tool shelves, a paint job and even a long-lost metal cutout of the state of Minnesota hanging on the wall.

"I like to have a tidy house," Manzer said, adding he wants the public works garage to mimic the care and pride the crew takes in its work out in the community.

Inside the garage, new pieces of equipment are making some of the jobs easier and more efficient for the public works team. A batwing mower allows the operator to keep mowing, even as it turns around to go the other way, saving time.

"We have not had a machine like this in years," Manzer said.

The new backhoe will be extremely useful come this summer, when crews clean ditches and stormwater ponds. Even now it is helping the guys out, as it is being used to refill the salt trucks as they come in from plowing.

"They're able to load their own trucks" instead of having to call in another truck to help, Manzer said.

This winter Willmar Public Works has also been trying a new road treatment technique, in which the dry salt and sand mixture laid on the ice- and snow-covered roads is first wetted down by a salt and water mixture. This activates the salt so it works better. It also makes sure the salt and sand are not blown off the roads before the mixture has a chance to work.

"It allows the product to stick to the road," Manzer said, which in turn reduces the amount of product the plow drivers have to put down on the roadways. This is helpful come spring, when the city's street sweeper begins cleaning up the remnants left behind after the thaw.

So far, only two of the city's fleet of plows are outfitted with the liquid tanks. Manzer plans to add two more this fall. He said its costs about $3,500 per truck.

When those big and heavy snowplows need maintenance work, a newly installed parallelogram lift allows the department's two mechanics to work on the trucks without having to take off the plow equipment or the tires.

"This was a heck of a project," Manzer said.

Instead of just laying the new lift on the floor of the mechanic's shop, it was decided to actually build it into the floor. What followed was a month-long project of tearing out old concrete, pouring the foundations for the lift to lay in, rerouting drain lines and hooking up all the electrical wires. The vast majority of the work was done by city staff.

"We finished it last Wednesday," Manzer said.

The lift project, which required workers with backgrounds in construction, electrical and plumbing, is the perfect example of the many talents the crew at Willmar Public Works has.

"We've got a group of talented, talented guys," Manzer said.

The team at Willmar Public Works is made up of 18 operators, two mechanics, a foreman and Manzer. Last year, four new operators were brought on board, and Manzer said eventually all 18 should be able to operate all of the trucks and equipment Public Works uses on a day-to-day basis.

However, when Manzer is looking for a new employee, he isn't necessarily looking for one who can drive a dump truck or plow snow. Instead he wants people with other skills that can be used on the job, like carpentry or electrical.

"That adds to our ability to do other jobs," Manzer said. "We do whatever comes in front of us."

Once the ice and snow melt away and temperatures rise, Willmar Public Works will have a busy spring and summer in front of them. This will include installing new playground equipment, finishing up projects at city parks, repairing streets and getting Robbins Island ready for several events. Manzer is confident his team will be able to get it all done and done well.

"I have a good group of people. I can't tell you how proud of these guys I am," Manzer said.