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Washington Co.'s first public works chief retires

October 10, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Gary Rohrer, Washington County's first director of public works, retired Sept. 30 after a 20-year career with the county that included advocating for strong policies to manage growth, overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars in capital projects, and devising policies and procedures to bring fairness and efficiency to the growing county.

Rohrer, 62, a Washington County native who had worked for Frederick and Howard counties, was hired by Washington County in 1989 as director of planning and review. In 1992, when the county created the Division of Public Works as an umbrella to manage and coordinate several departments, Rohrer was appointed to its helm.

Since 2007, he served as director of special projects while the Division of Public Works transitioned to leadership under Joseph Kroboth III, its current director.

Managing growth

When Rohrer first was hired by the county, he saw it as a community in transition from a "sleepy, rural county" to one facing the mid-sized county challenges he had experienced in his previous jobs. Not wanting his home county to fall victim to the "exploding growth and development" he had seen in Howard County, Rohrer said, he made it his goal to guide that growth and make sure certain areas of protection were put in place.

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On July 7, 1989, Rohrer was quoted in The Morning Herald as saying, "Development is healthy with reasonable control. It should, however, pay its own way."

Looking back over his career, Rohrer said he was satisfied with the policies he had helped implement in pursuit of that goal.

The biggest of these, he said, was the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), which is intended to hold developers accountable for their impact on public infrastructure. When Rohrer joined the county, its planning staff was in the process of drafting the first APFO in the state, and Rohrer took the lead.

"It was a very hot political football," he said. "I have a reputation for telling the elected officials what they need to hear and not always what they want to hear, so it was a very delicate task."

Rohrer said with developers on the board of commissioners at the time, "politics prevailed, and the original document was gutted," removing provisions concerning schools and state highway corridors and increasing the tolerance for strip development.

Later boards were more receptive to Rohrer's suggestions, adding major elements for schools, libraries and transportation to the ordinance, he said.

Rohrer also instituted requirements for bonds and guarantees for infrastructure to be built by developers to protect the county from default or unnecessary maintenance costs.

Today, some critics argue the county has not done enough to regulate development, but Rohrer said he feels the county has struck the right balance.

"A community that does not grow or regenerate is going to die on the vine," he said. "So you have to find ways to stimulate the growth, but manage it."

Sanitary district

Rohrer said the most daunting task of his career was dealing with the excessive debt and bureaucracy that had developed under the Sanitary District, the special agency that ran the county's water and sewer systems until the mid-1990s, and overseeing the reorganization of that agency under direct county control as the Washington County Water and Sewer Department.

Rohrer, who served as an ex-officio member of the panel that investigated the failing district, said he believed mismanagement and political influence were to blame for the problems.

"There was a lot of pressure to hold the rates the same, and what was happening was, because of that, systems were not being properly maintained, it was just spiraling downward 'til they crashed, and one day, they couldn't even make payroll," Rohrer said. "It just literally fell down around them."

Gregory B. Murray, who was hired to direct the new Water and Sewer Department, said Rohrer's leadership was a central part of the county's success in turning the department around.

"His strength of character and leadership ability were very evident in the decisions that had to be made, many of them very difficult, and his engineering background and abilities certainly benefited us as we moved forward with needed capital improvements and projects that had to be done very cost-effectively and quickly to bring many of our facilities up to standards," said Murray, who now is the county's administrator.

Today, Rohrer said, the department is operating in the black and the $57 million debt that existed at the time of restructuring now is in the mid-$20 millions.

Roads and bridges

Two of the accomplishments Rohrer said he is most proud of are systems he instituted for pavement management and bridge maintenance.

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