Rich Barstad: Retiring after 30 years in city service

August 2009 Posted in People

By Dixon BledsoeRich Barstad, left, talks with a city employee at a recent public works project site in Silverton. He retires this month after 30 years with the city.

In 1979, Jimmy Carter was struggling with the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, home-loan interest rates hit 21 percent briefly but dropped back to a more reasonable 15 percent, Rupert Holmes made piña coladas famous in his number-one hit, “Escape” and a young man named Rich Barstad became the City of Silverton’s engineer.

Thirty years later, interest rates hover around 5 percent, Iran still makes headlines, music is all over the map and the engineer is retiring with wonderful memories, the respect of his coworkers and a track record of success.

Barstad, a North Marion High School graduate, received a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Oregon State University in 1974, then served two years with the U.S. Army in Italy.

When Silverton’s Public Works Director Fred Mills left office, he took over as both public works director and city engineer.

“Rich’s fingerprints are all over every piece of public infrastructure built in this community since 1979,” City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said. That includes major upgrades to the city’s wastewater and water treatment plants, water and sewer distribution lines (Abiqua main line being the largest distribution project he oversaw), two major signalization projects, remodeling of the Community Center and City Hall, the municipal pool upgrade and the soon-to-be built Silverton Senior Center.

“In addition to all the public infrastructure projects, Rich played a primary role in reviewing plans and crafting conditions of approval on all new private development built in Silverton over the past 30 years.”

Those developments included Abiqua Heights, Webb Lake, Pioneer Estates, Mountain High, Safeway Shopping Center and Silverton Industrial Park.

With a staff of 20 full-time employees and one part-timer, the Public Works department has accomplished many projects under Barstad’s wing, though he is quick to give credit to others.

“We have had interesting projects and a great staff – from public works and planning to maintenance and administration, along with the city council. Most people don’t know that in the 1970s, the Abiqua water lines were wooden. We replaced those rather archaic lines with 14-inch to 20-inch ductile iron pipes,” he said.

“My best memories are of some very unique construction projects, including the waste-water plant upgrades and our work with The Oregon Garden, which were done at the same time. Using treated wastewater at the Garden instead of putting it into Silver Creek was a complex, pretty amazing project. To this day, our consulting engineering team, HDR Engineering, still touts it as a major accomplishment on their resume when bidding for other jobs,” Barstad said.

A few projects and tasks undertaken brought in some complaints and gained a little notoriety. Barstad smiled ruefully when asked about the Silverton Reservoir dam, which has been the focus of safety discussions in the past few years. It is an earth-filled dam constructed 35 years ago to standards and practices of the time.

“I think people have a valid concern. The city needs to maintain it and keep it safe. We know so much more now than we did then. It has adequate structural integrity.

“A lot of people became concerned when it was labeled a high hazard dam back in the mid-1990s.

That simply means that if something happens to it, a sizeable population immediately adjacent to it might be affected. It was deemed safe enough to withstand a 6.9 magnitude earthquake and has sufficient safety factors. We are safe seismically. I believe the study done said it was probably safe to around an 8.0 magnitude earthquake, but that is just an estimate.

“We need to evaluate it regularly and consistently to see if we need to upgrade it, but it certainly has caught the attention of state government, Salem and the Oregon Water Resource department as much as any dam in Oregon.

“On the other hand, we are extremely fortunate to have two terrific water supplies (The Abiqua and Silver Creek) with room to grow. People don’t always see the value of the dam, but they will,” Barstad said.

Safety and cost-effective planning are important aspects of his work.

“One of Rich’s other primary roles as public works director is to make sure the city has up-to-date master plans for our sewer, water, storm water, parks and transportation systems,” said Cosgrove.

“These plans are of major importance in determining the priorities for our Six-Year Capital Improvement Plan and for setting System Development Charges at an appropriate level to ensure that growth pays its own way. Rich has done a tremendous job in this area and I know he takes particular pride in protecting the city’s long-term infrastructure needs.”

Barstad has been very happy in his job.

“It has been very rewarding, working in a small town that I care about and getting to be involved in so many interesting and varied projects. We’ve done a lot with parks, received some complaints along the way, tried to handle them the best we could with the resources we had. I enjoy the engineering aspect of the job, although much of our work has been overseeing our engineering consultants.”

In addition to dealing with infrastructure, Barstad interacts with the public.

“One of the first conversations I remember having with Rich when I arrived in Silverton was the importance of providing good customer service to the residents that we serve and the understanding that every public works employee is a de facto ambassador of the City of Silverton,” Cosgrove said.

“Rich embraced that philosophy and in the past seven years he and his employees have made great strides in how we handle citizen inquiries and service complaints. He is open and approachable to citizens when they come to City Hall looking for information or to ask questions.”

Barstad said he has no regrets.

“I am very satisfied with what we have accomplished, and it clearly was a team effort, with the other departments, public works staff, city council, and city administration. I have been very fortunate to work with a great group of people at all levels, and have worked for three longer-term city managers.”

What will Barstad tell his replacement? “How important customer service is, and learning that philosophically we need to leave things for our customers better than we found it, whether it is yard damage, sewer spills or potholes. We need to make sure we leave customers whole – better than when we got there.” He added, “I would probably tell my successor that we have to identify more resources for street improvements and storm-drain maintenance. I hope they are able to have a more stable funding mechanism than what the legislature gives us from gas taxes.”

What might he do differently? Barstad smiled a smile known only to short-timers. “I’m satisfied. We accomplished over 400 projects since I started, through the work of a great team and supportive city. No regrets.”

Cosgrove holds Barstad in high esteem.

“Rich has given back to the community as a volunteer for the Silverton Lions Club, and on numerous community projects over the years. He hasn’t just ‘worked’ for the city for 30 years, he has ‘served’ the city for 30 years,” Cosgrove said.

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