JT Maher works with his hands. For nearly 30 years, Maher has been filling potholes, landscaping parks and cemeteries and replacing water pipes — first in St. Johns, then in Duncan.
When embattled Duncan Town Manager John Basteen resigned in August and Town Clerk Isabel Blancarte was fired, Maher and two other public works employees were the only ones left on the payroll.
When Interim Manager Philip Cushman arrived in Duncan, he said he could see things were not getting done. That first morning he met with Maher, Joe Lacey and Kendall Lacey and immediately decided to hire additional staff.
“There was a lot of work that had to be done and when in a crisis situation... I would say that when you have cemeteries that have four-foot high tumbleweeds, that’s a pretty serious situation because you have a fire danger and all of this other stuff, you have to get people hired,” Cushman said.
Cushman also decided to step back and let the men do their work.
“I have a different management style. You get good people and you get out of their way. You let the people that know the job do their job,” Cushman said. “I don’t know how (Basteen) was doing it before but I could see that things weren’t getting done and it wasn’t because public works didn’t want to do it. I guess it was they weren’t allowed to do it. I don’t know. I give people all the authorities they need, give them high standards to achieve and let them do it.”
He’s had no reason to second-guess that decision, Cushman said.
“You look at JT and he has an extraordinary amount of experience. A lot of times it’s bubblegum and duct tape to keep things going. Water systems and roads are very expensive infrastructure and you don’t always have enough money or the right equipment to do it, but you’ve still got to figure it out and (he does),” Cushman said.
This is home
Maher was born and raised in St. Johns, which at 3,500 people is more than four times the size of Duncan, but is still considered tiny by most standards. He spent 20 years working in the St. Johns public works department before going to work for the Town of Duncan in 2010 when he and his wife moved here to be closer to her family. He left the town in 2012 to work for the family dairy, but returned to the public works department in 2017.
He and his crew are responsible for the town’s roads, sewage system, water system, cemetery, three parks and the 71 other properties purchased over the years.
The town operates the Riverside Well near town hall, the Hunter Estates Well east of Highway 75, plus two large tanks on the north and south sides of town.
A man of few words and an aversion to cameras, Maher admitted during a recent tour his job is a challenge in many ways, but he dismisses the idea Duncan’s issues are unique or that he deserves accolades.
“It’s your job, you’ve got to try to be prepared to handle anything that comes your way,” Maher said philosophically. “It’s the nature of the beast. I think it’s just small town USA. The things you’re faced with. Not a lot of sales tax revenues, income. You just do the best you can with what you have.”
The sewage and water systems, by necessity, are at the top of Maher’s priority list. An energy services company hired by the town has told council members the aging systems are in dire need of an overhaul. Not only are the parts aging, but the town’s hard water has resulted in significant mineral buildup. The scaling is disrupting the flow of the water, particularly in the Hunter Estates area, which includes Duncan Elementary School.
A study of the town’s water meters showed nearly 60% of the flow stops are frozen, making it impossible for the water to be turned off.
Looking for grants
The company, Veregy, is in the process of trying to obtain grants to help pay for a $2.5 million to $3 million for an automated water softener/meter reading system and a $600,000 to $1.2 million wastewater overhaul.
The Hunter Estates well keeps him particularly busy, often having to be shut down due to repairs, Maher acknowledged.
“It’s not a daily basis, but it can be a weekly issue. It’s a small system so it has hiccups,” Maher said.
The sooner the water and sewage systems are upgraded, the sooner he can shift his attention to other priorities, Maher said.
“There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel to help upgrade things that haven’t been upgraded. As time goes on things wear out,” Maher said.
What would his priority be if money weren’t a concern?
“Number one would be fixing the roads so they weren’t an issue. That’d probably be the top five items, to have the roads fixed. Some new equipment, a grader would be the biggest thing,” Maher said.
Anyone who has driven in and around Duncan can’t help but notice the roads are in poor shape, but the town simply doesn’t have the money nor the man power, time or equipment to fix them the way they need to be, Maher said. During every storm he worries what havoc the rains will bring because most of the time all they can do is patch the potholes. And, the number that can be fixed often depends on that month’s budget.
“If money was no object I’d grind the roads up, re-do your base and your groundwork and lay new asphalt,” Maher said.
Joe Lacey will soon be giving the council a five-year plan on Duncan’s roads, Cushman said.
“I kind of joke (to say) that Joe Lacey is our ‘Roads Scholar,’ because he knows all of our roads,” Cushman said.
When not working on roads and water-related issues, Maher said they do their best to keep up with Centennial Park, Veterans Park, Packer Park and the Duncan Valley Cemetery, where they’d like to see new fences, trees and other beautifying features. They also dream of one day offering Duncan’s kids a splash pad and other fun activities.
There are also all of the properties Cushman and the council hope to clean up and sell to new business owners, Maher said.
Asked which duties interest him the most, Maher thought a moment, before replying, “I think it’s across the board. It’s all enjoyable.”
And while he’d like to have more staff, Maher said the staff he does have is “great.”
“They have a lot of abilities and they were born and raised here,” Maher said. “They’re the best you could ask for.”
He hopes the next town manager will look at Duncan, see the possibilities and realize the “sky’s the limit.”
“I’d like somebody to put their heart and soul into the community,” Maher said. “It’s a good little town with a lot of deep roots.”
Cushman, who has served as interim town manager in several communities, said too many people don’t realize just how hard people like Maher work and under what circumstances.
“Whether you’re in Fredonia, Dewey-Humboldt, Huachuca City or Pima, every one of those public work directors you’re going to talk to are facing the same issues,” Cushman said. “They don’t have the budget, they don’t have the people and yet they still have to meet all of the expectations of what a well-managed community has to produce. Those are probably the biggest unsung heroes that you have in any town, those public works guys.”
He’s gotten plenty of calls from people complaining, Cushman said.
“It’s unfortunate, but you’ll get the calls, ‘I saw so and so stopping off at the store and it looks like he was screwing off,’ and it’s like, ‘No, he’s getting some Gatorade so he can get out there and fix whatever else he was fixing.’ People sometimes have unrealistic expectations of these guys,” Cushman said.
Asked about the negative comments being heard in recent years about Basteen and the town in general, Maher would only say “there are two sides to every story.”
Cushman said he could probably hire 10 more people and still not have enough to get all of the jobs done. He’s just grateful for the ones he’s got.
“A lot of them could certainly get paid a lot more by working for Freeport or any other places, but they like the fact they have a small town to work in,” Cushman said. “Those guys are real heroes. The community really needs to recognize what these folks are doing.”
Maher, a father of five, said despite the challenges he stays because Duncan is home.
“Being in a tight-knit community with family, good place to raise your kids and having a challenge. If you can make things better and see that you’ve accomplished something...isn’t that what life is all about?” he asked.