Tom Sanders of Moberly, Mo., named Public Works Leader of the Year
Tom Sanders said one of the things he enjoys most about being the director of public works for the city of Moberly, Mo., is the diversity his job brings.
“I run across something different every day,” he said. “A large portion of my time is spent identifying needs in the areas I work in (and) trying to find the solutions and funding to address them.”
Sanders’ ability to find funding for his various municipal projects over the past 26 years is one of the reasons he was named Public Works Leader of the Year by the Missouri Chapter of the American Public Works Association in December 2019.
“I think the total is north of $16 million now,” he said.
Not what he intended
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in geology from Central Missouri State University, Sanders worked with a testing firm that had him working with the drill rig, putting in a monitoring well, test boring for construction and providing numerous other types of testing and oversight. This position gave him exposure to a variety of construction sites, including buildings, parking lots, roads and more. In February 1991, he worked with Stevens & Associates conducting environmental audits and then spent two years with Jacobs Engineering, which served as contract oversight managers on a number of cleanup projects in the Midwest.
“The experience with these companies gave me the background I needed to get in with the city,” he said.
When Moberly had to transition to a subtitle D type landfill for its municipal waste, the city did not have anyone on staff who was familiar with that kind of setup nor the applicable Environmental Protection Agency regulations and had to use outside consultants to address the related issues. In 1994, the community development director position came open, and Sanders was hired to not only handle that role, but take over landfill operations as well.
As community development director, Sanders was in charge of planning and zoning, grants, building inspection, code enforcement and new construction projects in addition to the landfill. Eight years later, the public works director position came open, and because he had worked so closely with that department in his other role, Sanders knew it wouldn’t be a stretch to learn more in order to include the airport, cemetery, fleet maintenance and street department to his job description.
“It wasn’t really where I intended to go. I just worked into it,” he said.
Realizing the vision
Of course the goal of any public works department is to provide the community with the various services required by the people who live, work and do business there. Whether he is revitalizing or removing deteriorated housing in the city; performing routine roadway maintenance; creating new sidewalks to get students safely to and from school; or connecting bridges and trails for alternative modes of transportation, Sanders said he loves seeing the successful completion of every large project.
“To visualize something, work through the needs, design, funding, construction and watch it materialize as something that will provide service to the public is the most exciting thing about my job,” he said.
Sanders is particularly proud of the trail master plan that he helped create in the late ’90s that set up a phased approach to connect their school complex, downtown area and parks system. He also worked with several companies to close out their landfill at no cost to the city.
“The costs to operate under the new regulations were not feasible for a small volume city like we had and there was no reserve set aside for the closure,” he said. “As part of this, we implemented volume-based trash pricing and curbside commingled recycling. Trash rates were going up to the point where it made sense for people to pay for the volume that they use rather than everyone paying the average. It was a tough sell, but it worked out well.”
He was also responsible for the Omar Bradley Airport upgrades, another phased approach that reconstructed a runway, added new LED lights, remodeled office spaces and constructed a new 12-unit T-hangar building.
“We were able to get outside funding to pay for 90-95% of the project,” he said.
Always more to do
Naturally, there is always more to do, and Sanders’ future goals include updating several of their documents, including zoning regulations and subdivision regulations; improving Moberly’s street rating system with a LIDAR scanning system; and more. Sanders said there are challenges with every project, but his main two challenges involve funding
Sanders said the latter has everything to do the former and he is constantly looking for ways to encourage kids to consider working for the city.
“The street department, water department, wastewater (and) code enforcement are important positions, but cities are struggling to increase the pay to stay competitive,” he said. “And while most kids are aware of the police and fire departments, it’s tough to recruit for these positions as well.”
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