Long-time DPW commissioner retiring

Photo by Chris Jackett

Photo by Chris Jackett

Melvindale Department of Public Works Commissioner Eric Witte will retire Sept. 30

Sunday Times Newspapers

MELVINDALE – The city is losing one of its longest-serving employees next month.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Eric Witte is retiring from his post with the city Sept. 30, although his last day will be Sept. 24, when a retirement party will take place 6:30 p.m. at the Civic Arena, 4300 S. Dearborn.

A Melvindale resident his entire life, Witte, 50, began working with the city when he was in high school. He spent the summer of 1976 working at the city pool before spending two years working at the ice arena.

“My idea of fun as a kid was to go across the railroad tracks and dig at what we called ‘The Holes,’ “ Witte said. “Here I am, still digging holes.”

Witte comes from a long line of residents who gave back to the community they lived in. His grandmother was born in Melvindale in 1908 in a house built on Outer Drive by his great-grandfather. Witte currently owns the house next door, which was built in 1909 by his great-grandfather’s brother.

“Melvindale was incorporated in the living room of the house I own,” he said of the historic 1924 event that made Melvindale a city.

His grandfather worked with the DPW from the 1930s to the 1960s, and his father and uncle spent a combined 71 years of service with the Police Department after both started there in 1953.

With all that family history, it was no surprise that Witte got involved with his community.

After high school, Witte spent most of 1978 working in road construction and took courses in law enforcement at Henry Ford Community College before he was laid off. He took a job as a building material wholesaler for a Detroit company until April 1981, when he quit to take a position with Melvindale’s DPW. He’s been there ever since.

“Initially I had considered a career in law enforcement,” Witte said. “My dad didn’t want me to get into police and law enforcement. You get three seconds to make a decision, and they spend three years deciding if it was right or not.”

After working with the DPW for a few years, his former boss from the ice arena, who now was with Public Works, sent Witte to take some educational courses in 1984.

“He sent me to some classes to get my water operator’s license,” Witte said. “I was always good in school.”

Witte got his initial license in 1985 and passed the test to service any size department in 1991. He also got an associate degree in business administration from HFCC in 1983 and his residential builders license in 1984, allowing him to become a building inspector for city.

Turning down multiple offers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources between 1986 and 1987, Witte elected to stay in his hometown.

“I looked around at who I was working with and realized it wouldn’t be too long until I was in charge,” he said.

In 1989, Witte was named commissioner of public works, building and safety. Three years later, his position was combined with the other commissioner role that handled water and sewer. He also was named Downtown Development Authority director in 1994.

He said a lot has changed in the past 30 years. Residents call the DPW to sweep up broken glass in their driveways now, whereas they would just do it themselves 30 years ago.

“There’s always something,” Witte said. “It’s harder to respond to the request for service from the citizens with the reduction of manpower. We don’t have the money to fix everything.”

The DPW had a total of 23 employees in the 1980s and has just 10 now. Working extra hours has become a regular part of the job for Witte, but he said it gets to a point daily where he has to go home and let some things wait until the next day.

“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to see done, I’d like to see fixed,” he said.

Some highlights of Witte’s tenure with the DPW include a $2.5 million project sanitary pump station construction project and brainstorming work with the Detroit Sewer and Water Department’s wholesale meter reading system, which Melvindale now uses to monitor water pressures and how many of gallons of water are being used at any given time.

Witte served as the Downriver branch president of the American Public Works Association in 2000, which led to the presidency position for the entire Michigan chapter in 2007 and 2008.

He contemplated returning to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but decided to put his time and efforts toward improving the city.

“We don’t have a lot of substandard housing in this community anymore,” Witte said of one of his accomplishments.

Although he is retiring from the city, Witte said he’ll remain a resident, mainly because of the poor housing market.

“I’m here for a while. It’s still a dream to retire to the (Upper Peninsula),” Witte said.

At age 50, Witte’s retirement is more of a financial move than anything else. He makes about $79,000 annually and plans to be one of several DPW directors and city engineers in southeastern Michigan who have retired from a position in one city and then move on to fill a similar position in a nearby city.

“My plans are to hopefully stay in the public works field, hopefully within commuting distance. I’m too young to do nothing,” Witte said. “I think they’re going to try to absorb the position, although I don’t know how.”

His retirement from the city also means he’ll give up his position as DDA director per pension regulations that require complete separation for 30 days, starting Sept. 30. Witte also worked with the zoning board of appeals and the planning and beautification commissions.

Witte said he has been appointed by four mayors and nine city councils.

His immediate post-retirement plans include tenting for a week in November during deer season. He hopes to find a new position to begin just after Thanksgiving.

For information on Witte’s Sept. 24 retirement party at the Civic Arena or to purchase tickets for $25, which includes a gift and cannot be purchased at the door, call Joan Luke at (313) 429-1060.

(Contact Chris Jackett at cjackett@bewickpublications.com)