BILLINGS — The city of Billings looked internally to fill a public works director position open since July and hired Debi Meling, the woman who has been the city's engineer for 15 years.
Meling took the position after Dave Mumford retired from the job he held for almost 20 years in July.
Meling had her first day on the job on Monday. In her years as engineer for the city, she helped design and work with contracted builders to construct countless projects. Q2 spoke with her from the public works offices inside the Billings Depot on Wednesday.
"That’s just been so neat to watch the city grow and develop and watch the improvements that we’ve made come to fruition and just change people’s lives. To be able to take that which I’ve done for the past 15 years and move into this more service-oriented area of public works is exciting," Meling said.
Public works is the city department that builds and maintains infrastructure dealing with solid waste pick up and disposal, waste water and water collection, treatment and distribution, storm drains, street maintenance, traffic lights, signals and signage.
Of her experience working for the city, Melling said she will bring her knowledge of collaboration between the divisions of public works to her new role. In engineering, she would build structures that operations and maintenance staff have to work with for a long time. Meling said that knowledge will serve her well.
"It’s been really important over the last 15 years to work with all of those other divisions and really understand what they do so that when we build things they are easy to maintain and easy to operate," Meling said.
A big project that Meling will help oversee over the next few years will be the construction of a water treatment facility and reservoir on the West End of Billings. The project is budgeted for $126 million and will be located about 300 acres of property mostly comprising the Former Knife River gravel pit near Shiloh Road and 48th Street West.
The West End water treatment facility would be a welcome addition of redundancy to the Billings water system.
Currently, the city relies on a single treatment facility located on the banks of the Yellowstone River near MetraPark. Meling said the city has only hours of supply in the lines if something were to go wrong at the current facility.
"Depending on what portion of the system we loose and what type of day, you're anywhere from about 8 to 11 hours. If we loose our source, we have less than a day to figure something out. That's not enough time when you're trying to supply water to a city," Meling said.
Teams are now in the designing the facility, starting at the river and working inward, Meling said. That's also the order construction would go and if the city gets the necessary permits, construction could start in late 2021, with the project scheduled for completion in the following two years Meling said.
The reservoir has the potential to offer some recreation opportunities like boat docks, fishing peers, and walking trails, the city just has to find the money. The recreation aspects of the project can't be built with money earmarked for upkeep of the system, Meling said.
"We can’t be using water funds and we should not be using water funds to buld picnic shelters and fishing docks. If we want to do all of that, we will have to partner with the community," Meling said.
The city is also applying for grants to help fund the project, Meling said.
A lot of the work on projects like the West End water treatment facility comes in making sure it stays within environmental regulations. Meling said pretty much every project undertaken by public works must comply with continually evolving regulations set up by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are constantly watching those changing regulations and trying to adjust not only our operations but our capital plan to figure out how to construct and improve our system so that we continue to meet those regulations. That’s always a challenge," Meling said.
Meling said ensuring people find value in the services offered by public works to be another challenge she'll lead the department through in her new role. She brought up street sweeping as an example. If there is the need or call from the public for more street sweeping, then fees would have to be adjusted to provide that increased service.
"I think our citizens and our users have changed to where the expectations are a little bit different and we need to make sure that we are changing with those expectations. We need to continue to keep our eye on what people want and what people are willing to pay for and make sure that we are responding to that," Meling said.
Public works was budgeted to spend $16 million on operations and maintenance projects in 2020.
Meling highlighted a project completed in 2020 that widened and added sidewalk to a half-mile stretch of King Avenue East between Orchard Lane. Now kids have a safer place to walk on their way to Ponderosa School.
Another project was a $22 million improvement to the landfill that allows for indoor drop off. Meling said the new building should open January 1 and cut down on the amount of trash scattered in areas around the Billings landfill.
Another high-dollar project, improvements to the current water treatment facility was completed this year as well. The project worth $75 million brought the facility up to regulations for filtering minerals and took three years to complete.