Submitted by Deborah Lavery Powers
Rex A. Lester first came to Amelia Island as a little guy — four years old — camping with his family at the south end of the island, right where the river joins the ocean. Fifteen years later — at age 19 in 1985 – he began working for the City of Fernandina Beach as the lowest paid employee in the entire Pubic Works Department! He started out in Waste Water and has since worked his way up to Maintenance Manager – Streets and Parks, reporting directly to the City Manager.
Rex and his team meet every morning to go over the assigned tasks for the day, review what happened the day before – sometimes the entire week before — looking for possible areas for improvement. It’s a “Do you think a different piece of equipment might do that job better?” kind of review. The team of 14 works together to accomplish their goals – and complete their tasks – always trying to do their work in a safer and more efficient manner. We see the results of their teamwork every time we leave our homes.
Think of any City street — and visualize the property lines on either side of it. Everything between those property lines that falls within the rights-of-way — with the exception of the telephone poles, fire hydrants and sewer manholes — are under the maintenance and repair responsibility of Rex Lester. That includes the culverts, pavement, stop signs, the traffic lights, sidewalks, more than 7000 trees, storm drainage — the whole works.
We also see the maintenance and repair work of Rex’s team every time we walk the Greenway, visit a city park or playground, sit on one of the benches downtown or in a pocket park, walk on a boardwalk, or use a beach access. As well as visit the cemetery. Or admire the flowers along Center Street. Or even see a new sign pop up somewhere around town.
It is interesting to note that when we talk about our city streets, we aren’t talking about 8th Street or Atlantic Avenue east to the ocean from 8th, or South Fletcher. Those are State roads. Nor are we talking about Sadler, 14th Street, Jasmine or most of Citrona. Those are County roads. But when it comes to maintenance of those roads, the City maintains and repairs all State, as well as all city streets and traffic signals. The County takes care of its own. But, no matter which entity is responsible for maintenance and repair, Rex is involved in the cooperation and communication back and forth across State, County and City lines when it comes to problems encountered.
Streets and Parks is also responsible for the 20 underground drainage systems in our city — which total some 26,400 running feet (or five miles!) of pipes. Rex has helped install, rebuild or repair every one of the systems.
Storm water has long been a huge problem for our City. (Link to previous Fernandina Observer article). As Rex explained, storm water is an out of sight, out of mind, issue for most people until something like “Debbie” happens. But for Rex, it is an issue constantly on his mind as he and his team try, as best as they can, to keep the system operating as designed with the funds available to them.
When the City’s sanitation contractor picks up our yard debris, they haul it to the city “staging site” (known as the mulch site), where the material is ground up, loaded onto dump trucks and transported to Rayonier, who buys it from the City — mainly to be a good neighbor. Our mulch only represents 10% of what Rayonier uses, but their buying it from us currently puts about $40,000 a year into the City coffers. Ten years ago, Rex worked with Rayonier to put this arrangement into place.
There are a host of “stories” about working for Streets and Parks. One Rex tells is about the time many years ago when two of the 36″ underground pipes in the storm water system needed to resealed at their connecting joints. Rex volunteered to do the job. One man, at the upstream manhole, held a rope tied to Rex’s foot. A second, at the downstream manhole, held a spotlight for him to see by. Rex edged his way to the damaged joints with a trowel held in his mouth. Once where he needed to be, he started working. Then stopped — abruptly! Because, aaaah, he found himself staring eyeball to eyeball with a very large snake. Suffice it to say that a trowel is a very handy tool to be holding at a time like that. The body parts that went floating downstream shortly thereafter did not belong to Rex.
Rex talked about Streets and Parks’ participation in all the special events that occur in town. They put up (and take down!) all the banners, deliver and place the cones — and then do the clean up work, as needed. He remembers years ago how he used to collect trash daily during Shrimp Festival, then go downtown after it was over with rake and picker to work on the clean up. And bag the debris. Now the Festival takes care of trash removal during the event, and he and his team clean up afterwards, using back-pack blowers to direct the trash into piles — with the street sweeper coming along behind to pick up the piles.
Records are kept of all man-hours used for maintenance/repair duties. Here are some 2012 examples:
700 man-hours Special events
1241 man-hours Street sweeping (5003 miles of it)
2402 man-hours Downtown area cleaning
3274 man-hours Rights-of-way Maintenance
799 man-hours Streets/Parks share of marina dredging project
1082 man-hours Boardwalks and beach accesses: repair and inspection
Keeping up with the vandalism is sometimes a heartbreaking task for Streets and Parks. For instance, the benches on the waterfront are now bolted to the boardwalk because vandals had been throwing the benches into the river. The top runner of a bench in one of the pocket parks – with a plaque reading, “For my children who have gone before me” – was torn off and stolen. Removing stop signs is one of the most dangerous vandalisms. And then there are the folks who remove street signs — perhaps because the street name is the same as theirs? The list goes on.
Rex is one of the City’s First Responders – 24/7 – in the event of emergencies such as flooding, equipment failure, downed trees or traffic signals, hurricanes, etc. He mentions, with a smile, the number of times Police have been heard knocking on his front door in the middle of the night in connection with that “24/7” role.
In speaking of 24/7, Rex told of the days when he and other maintenance personnel went into flooding water — in the middle of the night — to try to solve problems, hours before the Florida Utility Company had deemed the area safe from live wires. No more! As Rex says, “We evaluate first, and then we do what we can do — safely!” Safety standards are of paramount importance and are reviewed at team meetings once or twice a month.
The Technical Review Committee (TRC) has only one of its original members still serving. Rex A. Lester! The TRC (made up of at least one representative from Planning & Zoning, Utilities, Building, Facilities Maintenance and the Fire Department) meets twice a month to review all commercial and subdivision applications and submit compliance reports on each one.
Rex has a measure of pride in his eyes as he mentions that the only “warning” he has received in his 28.5 years of employment with the City happened “way back when”, (long before “family leave” days were ever thought of!) when his then supervisor wrote him up for taking off too much time to care for his children when his wife was ill.
Some years ago, as Rex started climbing down into the storm drain off North Highland Street , he noticed the water rippling slightly, but steadily, to his right. He soon realized he was sharing the pipe with an alligator! Needless to say, he was up the ladder and outta’ there in short order. But how did they get the alligator back into Egan’s Creek where it belonged? By flushing him out with a high pressure water truck!
Rex’s parents, he says, brought him up “the old fashioned way,” teaching him “if you can survive, you can make it in this world.” He feels that their parenting has served him well in his years of employment with the City — in his moving forward up the ranks, and in his continuing efforts to always “try to do it better.”
Editor’s Note: After a career in adult education, where writing, course design and development were her “beat”, Deborah is now enjoying the world of freelancing. And volunteering. We thank Deborah for her contributions.
March 14, 2013 11:02 p.m.