Hoover Dam: Human Ingenuity and Grit

The statue of “Alabam” honors one of the unsung workers who built Hoover Dam.

Boulder City, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is famous as the company town that housed the 7,000 men who built nearby Hoover Dam in the early 1930s. One of those men is immortalized by an eight-foot tall bronze statue on Wyoming Street and Nevada Way that welcomes visitors to the city’s old town district. He’s carrying a broom, like a rifle, across one shoulder and has a bandolier of 15 rolls of toilet paper draped around his neck. On a construction site full of draftsmen and designers, he called himself a “sanitary engineer.” 

He’s “Alabam,” one of the unsung workers of Hoover Dam. The city has about 20 statues around town. Many memorialize the dam workers. It says something about this town that it chose its first statue in 2007 to honor the guy who cleaned the outhouses. Bravo, I say. 

We, of course, had to visit the dam while we are this way. The electrical power it provides and the water from Lake Meade that it created make the neon lights and flowing fountains of modern Las Vegas possible. Los Angeles, a couple of hours away, would also be very different if not for Hoover Dam. Most of the Southwest for that matter. 

We first visited the small museum on the second floor of a historic Boulder City hotel that tells the story of the town rose out of the harsh desert. Nearby Black Canyon was chosen in 1930 as the site of the great dam that would finally tame the unruly Colorado River. Desperate men in search of work began showing up in tiny Las Vegas or built a collection ramshackle huts along the river known as “Ragtown.” 

Hoover Dam is a testament to human ingenuity and grit.

The federal government and the company chosen to build the dam needed permanent housing for these and the thousands of other workers who would build the dam. It would be a place where clean living would encourage good work habits. Finishing the dam on time was the goal. 

So, no alcohol and gambling. A grainy black-and-white photograph in the museum shows the guard gate that everyone entering the town had to pass. The road leading to the gate, the caption explains, was littered with the broken remnants of the booze bottles of returning workers who had enjoyed a brief respite to Vegas.  

Even today, Boulder City remains one of only two towns in the state where gambling is still illegal.  

To lessen temptation, no women were allowed in either unless they were part of workers’ families. 

Sims Ely, a no-nonsense sort judging from the unsmiling photo of him, was given dictatorial powers as the town manager. He decided what businesses were allowed and who could stay. If Ely considered a resident unsavory, the offender was shown the gate and told never to return. There was no appeal. 

It all worked. Construction on the single, largest civil works project on U.S. soil started in 1931 and continued non-stop, 24-hours-a-day until the dam was completed four years later, two years ahead of schedule. 

Lake Meade is one of the most important lakes in America because it changed the Southwest.

A short ride down U.S. 93 brings you to the gleaming, white concrete that curves gracefully between the canyon walls. The elevators aren’t working – Sims Ely would be very displeased. So, we couldn’t tour the inside of the massive structure.  

Standing atop it, though, gave me a deep appreciation of what the men of Boulder City did. More than 100 died in the process working under grim and dangerous conditions. One survivor noted many years later that OSHA, had it existed at the time, would have stopped the work in 24 hours. 

Hoover Dam remains and enduring testament to human ingenuity and grit. It will serve as a counterpoint to the rest of this trip. 

From here, we move on to the great canyons of the Colorado Plateau, nature’s ongoing engineering projects. 

Vegas Sort of Grows on You

The north end of The Strip

I didn’t expect to like Las Vegas, but the place sort of sneaks up on you.

Though more than 40 million people come through here each year, the city is immaculately clean. Police presence is muted and panhandlers non-existent.

Gambling, of course, is what draws all those visitors.  Casinos line Las Vegas Boulevard for miles. The famed Strip, with its fake Eiffel Tower and New York skyscrapers and its gondolas and Chinese gardens, is certainly over the top, but strangely it’s not tacky and gaudy like the Canadian side of Niagra Falls.

Inside the loud, cavernous casinos, you can wager a bet on the turn of a card at the blackjack and poker tables, on the roll of dice, the spin of roulette wheels, the push of buttons on slot machines. You can even bet on the outcome of a soccer game in Greece or on the winner of the American League pennant – the Yankees are 9-6 favorites.

The casino at the Golden Nugget in “old” Vegas.

The casinos, though, weren’t crowded – many of the card tables were empty or attracted just one or two gamblers. I was able to nurse $20 through three nights of light betting on the poker slots at Planet Hollywood. About an hour a time was all I could muster before getting bored. I eventually lost it all – the machine wins 60 percent of the time, I’m told – but I had several enjoyable hours of pushing buttons, watching the casino night life and drinking freely of the its gin and scotch.

The food can be superb – I had the best prime rib of my life at Binion’s steakhouse – and the entertainment top notch. Elton John, Cher and Janet Lopez performed within a couple of blocks of each other during our time there. They were too rich for our budget, though. We opted instead for Cirque du Soleil’s breathtaking “O” show at the Bellagio. It’s a stunning mixture of the athleticism of high-flying trapeze artists, the beauty and grace of synchronized swimming and the mayhem of the Marx Brothers.

The old section of Vegas along Fremont Avenue retains some of the naughtiness of a bygone era. There, under the roof of a pedestrian mall that connects some of the oldest casinos in town, fortune tellers will read your palm, guys stand naked except for a jockstrap playing bad electrical guitar and girls dressed as nuns flash their breasts with cops standing not 10 feet away.

“That’s just wrong,” Doris said.

I found it exhilarating. No, not the fake nuns’ bare breasts, but the fact that they were out there baring them. I wish New York had preserved the some of the seediness of the Times Square that I remember as a kid instead of allowing all it to be sanitized and Disneyfied.

But three days is enough. We leave tomorrow for the canyons of Zion and Bryce and, of course, the grandest of all.


Time Is Running Out on Budget

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners will have a special meeting tomorrow night at Town Hall to discuss the town’s new budget. Now that the sale of the cigar shop is out of the way, maybe we can agree on a budget framework. Time is running short. 

The board had called the meeting several weeks ago to listen to public comments about the proposed sale, but the commissioners decided last week to cancel the sale and to use the meeting to discuss the budget. 

Selling the cigar shop was a distraction that merely complicated our budget discussions. Without the sale, the choice becomes simple: Either we raise taxes or we don’t. 

Our town manager has presented us with two workable, balanced budgets. One raises taxes four cents, bringing the tax rate to where it was in 2013 before a previous board cut it in an ill-advised, election-year maneuver that has cost the town almost a million dollars in lost tax revenue.  The additional money in that budget, about $180,000, will allow us to spend more on needed capital improvements, like sidewalks, and put money aside for big-ticket items, like fire trucks, that we know we’ll have to buy in the next five to seven years. 

The other proposed budget keeps the tax rate where it is now. It provides the same level of services to residents, pays for the two new policemen we added earlier this year and needed equipment for the fire and public works departments, provides our employees with a modest raise and maintains their health benefits. This budget, though, sets aside little money for sidewalks and no money for those big, future expenses. 

It merely kicks the can down the road. A tax increase is inevitable – we haven’t had one in a decade – if we want to maintain services, put aside money for needed, future expenses and provide for our employees. 

I’m going to suggest to the board that we kick the can for one more year and support the no-tax-increase budget. I’m not usually in favor of putting off tough decisions, but I don’t get the sense that a majority on the board would agree on what to put in the can if we were to pick it up. 

And there’s not a whole lot of time left to figure it out. The town manager must release to the public a budget framework in about two weeks. State law requires that a balanced budget be approved by June 30. 

My advice then is to maintain the status quo and commit to spending the rest of the year figuring out what our needs are, what they’ll cost and how we can raise the money. This will be a good year to do that. We’ll soon release the town’s new economic strategic plan and have started the process to update our state-required land use plan. Both look to the future. So should the board. We could commit to set aside real time at board meetings every couple of months to talk about the town’s future and how we’ll pay for it. 

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. It’s your money we’ll be talking about. You might as well come by and tell us how you think we should spend it.


Board Cancels Cigar Shop Meeting

In an otherwise uneventful meeting, the Swansboro Board of Commissioners last night surprised everyone in the room, including me, by canceling Monday’s public meeting on the controversial sale of town-owned property in the middle of downtown.

The item to cancel the proposed sale of the property at 106 S. Church Street, fondly known as the “cigar shop,” didn’t appear on the public agenda but had obviously been a topic of private discussion among some board members after the board voted unanimously a week ago to have the special meeting.

Before proceeding to the topics on the agenda, Mayor John Davis said the board would first handle an “administrative” item to cancel the meeting. There were no motions or seconds and no discussion about the reasons for the sudden change of heart. The board was “polled,” and we unanimously agreed to cancel the meeting on the cigar shop. We’ll still have a special meeting Monday night, but it will be about the new budget, now minus the cigar shop.

I can only guess as to why the board for the third consecutive year considered and then rejected a proposal to sell the property. Residents have consistently expressed their opposition to the sale. Dozens of people have written, called or approached me since the topic came up again a few weeks ago. No one was in favor of selling the property. I assume others on the board heard the same thing. The Board of Directors of the Swansboro Area Chamber of Commerce on May 2 unanimously passed a resolution opposing the sale. That probably did it.

I wasn’t in favor of selling the property for the reasons I’ve noted here previously, and I question the irregular way the board handled canceling the meeting. The topic should have been on the public agenda. I’m pleased, though, that this distracting and complicating issue is now out of the way, at least until next year if history is any guide.

Now, maybe we can move on and pass a budget in the next few weeks. I’ll post my thoughts about that as we get closer to Monday’s meeting.

Nothing much happened during the rest of the meeting. We approved a more user-friendly way our ordinances and charter are codified and now appear on the town website.  You can now search for subjects that appear in our charter and in all our ordinances.

We also discussed how meeting agendas are set. We have little control over what appears on most agendas. Ordinances and state law determine the timing for hearing permit applications, rezoning requests and the like. We can control what I’ll call the discretionary agenda items, such as discussions about future ordinances or policies. In the past, custom and tradition guided how those topics were chosen – usually a board member would bring up a topic at a meeting and the board would reach a consensus on whether to put it on a future agenda for further discussion. We asked our manager last night to come back with suggestions for setting a policy on how the discretionary portion of meeting agendas are determined.

Let’s Wrap This Up

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners sort of lost its way last night at yet another public workshop on the new town budget.

Our manager, Scott Chase, did as we requested last week. He presented us with two proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year: One doesn’t raise taxes and the other includes a 4-cent tax increase that would restore the tax rate to where it was in 2013 before a previous board cut it. The budget that rests on the current tax rate is rather austere, but it still provides for the two new police officers we hired earlier this year, a new police cruiser to replace an aging one, needed equipment for the fire and public-works departments, part-time help for our finance director, a modest raise for employees and continuation of their health-care benefit. The alternate budget, with about $180,000 in additional revenue, obviously allows us to do more. Importantly, it would finance more sidewalks, which a majority on the board seem to want, and would allow us to set aside money in our capital reserve fund for big-ticket items, such as new fire trucks, that we know we’ll have to buy in the next five to seven years. The austere budget allocates just $25,000 for sidewalks, which won’t buy much, and nothing for those future purchases.

The choice seemed clear, but we got sidetracked by a long discussion about selling a building the town owns on Church Street instead of raising taxes. If this all sounds familiar, it is. The previous board had discussed selling the building in the center of town in 2016 and ’17. Public opposition dissuaded the board each time.

I’m not in favor of selling the building, fondly known as the Cigar Shop, that we currently lease to my dear friend George Asmar. Everybody loves George, and he loves Swansboro. He has expressed interest in buying the building.  Whether we sell the building to him or not, George isn’t going anywhere. We just renewed his lease, which runs to 2020.

It seems very short-sighted to me to sell town assets for a one-time infusion of cash. What do we do next year? Sell Town Hall and lease it back? The property is strategically located next to town-owned Pug Pavilion, the site of our very popular summer music series. While we may not have a good public use of the property now, who knows what we might think of five or 10 years from now. Once we sell the building, though, we lose control of it, probably forever. It should also be noted here that the building will generate about $16,000 in rental income for the town this year.

But most of the board members said they wouldn’t consider raising taxes without first selling the Cigar Shop. We scheduled a public hearing for Monday to elicit people’s comments on the proposed sale.

But we don’t have to sell the building or raise taxes. The manager presented us with a realistic, workable budget without a tax increase. I emailed him this morning that I will support it as long as it funds the same level of services to residents, provides for a modest pay raise for employees and maintains their health-care benefit.

That budget, I think, merely kicks the can down the road by not allowing us to put money aside for the big expenses we know are coming. We will inevitably have to discuss raising taxes — we haven’t done so in a decade — to maintain our level of services and provide for our staff. We’re not being honest with our residents if we don’t at least talk about it.

But this isn’t the year. Most of the board seems opposed to raising taxes, and these budget discussions are turning rancorous and wearing down our manager and staff. For everyone’s sake, it’s time to come to an agreement on the outline of a budget with no tax increases and start wrapping this us. The drum and flounder have started biting in the White Oak.

An Embarrassing Evening

The Board of Commissioners had another budget workshop Tuesday night. Three people showed up. Good thing. I would have hated to embarrass ourselves in front of a full house.

I have been on this board for almost three years now. I have covered hundreds of similar meetings as a reporter. Never have I witnessed an elected board display such public disdain for its staff. I don’t think it was intentional, but I was flabbergasted nonetheless and, yes, embarrassed.

Budget discussions can be difficult and contentious. Budgets are really policy statements, reflecting the desires of the ruling body. We have five commissioners and a mayor; some have competing interests and differing views on the role of government. So, discussions can get pointed and sometimes heated.

wordsThis budget is particularly difficult because the town is growing. Capital needs – trucks, machinery, sidewalks and the like – and the demands on a small staff are growing as well. But shortsighted changes forced on us by the state legislature are beginning to affect our bottom line. We can no longer expand our tax base by annexing people who live on our borders, take advantage of the many services the town provides but pay nothing for them. We can no longer charge traditional fees, like franchise taxes. We’re forced to rely more and more on property taxes as our major source of revenue. As a result, all towns are in a tough spot.

Add to all that the irresponsible action the Board of Commissioners took five years ago when it cut the tax rate four cents as a campaign tactic. Since then, it has cost the town almost a $1 million in much needed revenue.

None of that, though, excuses what happened the other night.

It all started with staff requests for additional personnel. They would like to add a permit officer and an assistant finance director. Our public works director currently fills the role of permit officer and building inspector. It’s an untenable situation. If he were to leave, we’d have to hire two people to replace him because we’re not likely to find someone with the necessary training and licenses for both jobs. An assistant would help our finance director meet the burdensome state and federal reporting requirements, as well as perform more mundane but time-consuming tasks.

We didn’t much discuss why new staff were needed. Instead, one board member read payroll numbers from a list of N.C. towns that he said were comparable to Swansboro. Emerald Isle and Wrightsville Beach were also on the list. While their permanent populations are about the same as Swansboro’s, that’s the only thing the towns have in common. I don’t know what other towns were on the list because it wasn’t shared.

It really makes no difference because no two towns are alike. All have different needs and are governed by people with different visions and desires. What they choose to pay their staffs shouldn’t be used as a definitive yardstick to measure our payroll.

The board member reported that Swansboro’s payroll was slightly above the median of these mystery towns. He wanted to know why. It was an impossible question for our manager to answer without knowing what towns we were talking about or their situations. But the message sent to staff was clear: We pay you too much.

Another board member noted that the number of employees has grown too quickly since 2013, ignoring the fact that was the year the Recreation Department started. I guess we should have a nice Rec Building and programs with no one to watch the kids or to unlock the doors. A third board member agreed that this growth was “unsustainable.” The message to staff was clear: There are too many of you.

Instead of adding employees, yet another board member told our finance director, maybe everyone needs to work more efficiently. The department heads sitting in the room that night routinely log 90-100 hours in two-week pay periods without the benefit of overtime. The message to staff was clear: Work harder.

Then it was my turn. You hire good people, I said, and then trust their judgment. When the finance director says she needs help, I can only assume that she’s not trying to pad her department, that she actually needs help. Forced to choose, I’ll hire the help she needs rather than buy another truck for Public Works or lay more unused sidewalks on Corbett Avenue.

I suspect that this assessment will surprise many on the board. All, I think, value the hard work our staff commits every day to the job of running our town. At least, the board members go out of their way to praise staff members at almost every meeting. I don’t think that praise is hollow.

As a writer and journalist for much of life, I also know this: Words matter. They can have powerful negative or positive effects on people, regardless of your intentions. They need to be chosen carefully, especially by elected officials when talking about the people who carry out their policies.

Careless words were used the other night that sent an unintended message. We meet to talk about the budget again on Tuesday.  Maybe we’ll do better.

Someone Is Watching

Brown water pours out of the silt bag. The pipe leading from the pump is attached to the bag at the upper right-hand corner.

Wetlands can be a real pain in the butt if you’re a developer trying to build something in them. They must be ditched and pumped dry and topped with tons of dirt. Despite your best efforts they get soggy again come the first good rain.

The developers of the Dollar Tree and Verizon stores on N.C. 24 here in Swansboro are finding out just how stubborn wetlands can be. They chose a site that is about half wetland. They’ve been pumping them for weeks, dumping the water in a storm ditch along Main Street Extension. When they started clearing the site and disturbing the soil a few weeks ago, the discharge turned the color of chocolate milk, which seemed to violate the state’s turbidity standards. Those rules prohibit visible off-site sediment from any land-disturbing activity.

That water ran through the ditch, went under the road, through the Ace Hardware property, then under N.C. 24 and eventually into Halls Creek. The creek is designated by the state as a shellfish-growing water body. It’s already considered polluted by stormwater runoff.

A sample of the water pouring out of the bag is dark brown Monday.

Sedimentation is one of the leading causes of water pollution. It leads to fish kills, clogged streams, reduced storage volume of reservoirs and added filtration costs for our municipal water supplies. The smaller soil particles remain suspended in the water. These suspended particles block out light filtering through the water, reducing photosynthesis and altering the ecology of our streams.

I took some pictures and a couple of samples of the water coming out of the discharge pipe and sent them to Holley Snider, an inspector with the N.C.  Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources. The division enforces the sediment standards. Snider told me that the pictures seemed to indicate a problem. She spoke with the developer, Chris Bailey of Jacksonville, and visited the site on a day when no pumping was going on. She suggested that Bailey place a big nylon bag at the end of the pipe to filter sediment out of the discharge.

Bailey complied. But I had my doubts. These silt bags don’t do a very good job at capturing the finer sediments. After a heavy downpour early yesterday morning, my fears were confirmed. Black water poured from the bloated sediment bag and down the ditch along Main Street extension.

This time I brought a turbidity tube with me. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of water. The higher the turbidity, the harder it is to see through the water. Turbidity measurements are reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) or Jackson turbidity units (JTU). Different units are used depending on which method is chosen to measure turbidity. The two units are roughly equivalent and can be used interchangeably for field purposes.

With the naked eye, an average person can begin to see turbidity levels starting at around 5 NTU and greater. Lakes that are considered relatively clear in the United States can have a turbidity up to 25 NTU. If water appears muddy, its turbidity has reached at least 100 NTU. At 2,000 NTU, water is completely opaque. Water bodies in North Carolina with NTU of more than 50 are in violation of water quality standards.

Keep those numbers in mind.

The discharge from the construction site, right, contrasts with the clearer runoff flowing down an unaffected side ditch.

The clear plastic tube is about two inches in diameter and about four feet tall. At the bottom is a black and white disk. You pour your sample into the tube until you can no longer see the disk from the top of the tube. A scale on the side gives you the NTU measurement.

I poured less than a half inch of the water coming out of the silt bag into the tube and the disk disappeared. That corresponded to NTU greater than 250, the limit of the tube’s measurements.

I also measured the runoff in a side ditch not affected by the discharge. It had a NTU of 30. Where the two streams met, the difference was stark.

I took more pictures and sent them to Snider. I suggested that pumping the wetlands be stopped until a way is found to keep mud out of our creeks. She sent my photos on to Bailey and to Gary Pope of Johnson Grading who is doing the site work along with this email:

“Gary, per our phone conversation, please provide me with an update of the conditions of the site in response to this email, a copy of the required report from last night’s rainfall event and any additional measures being taken to reduce/limit turbid water from leaving the site.  It may be necessary to cease and desist pumping water, including water thru the silt bag, if the water that is leaving the site would result in a violation of the State’s water quality standards.”

The pumping stopped Monday afternoon.

We in Swansboro passed a tough watershed plan last year that commits the town to reducing the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into our surrounding waters. We instituted an annual stormwater utility fee a couple of years ago. Every property owner in town now contributes to help fund ways to reduce flooding and the flow of water pollution.

Everyone must do their part, including those who choose to build in our town. They should know that someone is watching.