AFSME Local 602 - MSU Moorhead

Indoors and Out, Crews Keep State Property in Shape

Carpenter Lusche Dekarski: “You never know what you’re going to run into, what’s going to be broken today.”

If you think fixing a broken screen at your house is a nuisance, just think what it’s like for the employees who maintain the Capitol and 21 other state buildings, inside and out.

In the winter, it means clearing 11 miles of sidewalk. In the summer, it means cutting enough grass to keep three 72-inch mowers running all day, every day.

When it snows, groundskeeper Mark Simeon and 13 co-workers expect to get called in at midnight. “It’s all hands on deck,” he says. They’ll put in close to 16-hour days. Their mission: make sure parking lots and sidewalks are clear enough so people can get into their buildings by 7 o’clock. Crews then spend the rest of the day cleaning up even more snow and ice.

A lawn to die for

During the rest of the year, Simeon gets a better chance to put his horticultural degree to use. Beyond lawn care, grounds keepers are in charge of all the trees and gardens on the Capitol grounds. They care for all the monuments and memorials. That means weeding, pruning, fertilizing, and applying pesticides as needed. There are annuals to plant, perennial beds to stay on top of, hedges to trim, and three large rose gardens to maintain. And that’s just the Capitol grounds.

“There’s a misconception that state workers just lean on shovels,” Simeon says. “It’s not true. We’re out here. We take pride in what we do to make things look really good, so the public can come in and say, ‘Wow, this is a showplace’.”

Keeping buildings functioning

While Simeon spends nearly all his time outdoors, carpenter Lusche Dekarski spends most of his time, it seems, with doors. “Door closers. Door hardware. Lock hardware. Mechanicals,” he says. “A lot of doors. People are going in and out of these buildings all day long and stuff’s breaking down.”

Doors that don’t work are more than a nuisance – they’re a potential security problem and safety problem, he says. “Something could happen, and people have to get in and out. So that’s our stand point. It has to work, or we might as well not even open.”

Dekarski is part of a crew of three dozen carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other crafts who take care of all the fix-it projects that prevent small problems from becoming big ones. But the Department of Administration doesn’t wait for problems to develop. For five years, commissioner Spencer Cronk says, the department has been scheduling which preventative maintenance needs to be done when. The tracking system generates 10,000 work orders a year to stay ahead of the curve.

Juggling priorities

By the time Dekarski reports to work at 6:30 a.m., at a shop a few blocks from the Capitol, the lead man is already sorting through that day’s stack of work orders that the computer spit out overnight. Jobs are sorted by urgency and by how long they will tie up how many people.

Crews grab their work orders and head out. Sometimes they’re in teams, sometimes they’re solo. “With our tradesmen, we can do anything, basically, up to a certain size,” Dekarski says. “We have a great machine shop – they can make any part that we need if we can’t get it. So it’s a bunch of pros doing a good job.”

Flexibility is the key

Still, things don’t always go smoothly. It could be that Dekarski can’t interrupt the regular workers at that particular time. It could be that a replacement part isn’t in stock and has to be ordered from an outside vendor. That means following a strict purchasing protocol.

Sometimes, a work order “starts out as a little job, but you open a can of worms,” he says. Or a job could require coming up “with a new way of fixing something, because it never broke before.”

That kind of judgment becomes more important as the department deals with repeated budget cuts. The carpenter shop is down to three workers – half the size it was only eight years ago, Dekarski says. Whether a recent retiree will be replaced is up in the air.

“We all have to do with a little less,” Dekarski says. But having fewer co-workers limits the jobs that crews can take on. That could mean more jobs will be contracted out, or not get done when they need to.

Mark Simeon

And there never seems to be a lack of work. “The computer never sleeps,” he says. “It keeps coming. It never ends.”

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