After just over six months on the job, a City of Revelstoke restructuring has handed the city’s young engineering director with an expanded portfolio that includes development services. It makes him the de facto second in command at city hall, overseeing a broad range of services, including the pipes, roads, bridges and other infrastructure, as well as many of the former planning director’s responsibilities.
The Times Review did an introductory story when Mike Thomas was announced as the new engineering director in late 2012. We caught up with him last week to learn more about him and his new role.
We met in his office, but due to background noise that would interfere with recording, we sought out a quieter room – and ended up in the unused office of the former planning director, where stacks of papers were piled haphazardly. Knowing Thomas’ background as an Australian soldier (he studied engineering at the Australian Defence Force Academy), I conjured the image of an occupying force taking over a fleeing regime’s administration buildings – but that’s just my overactive mind.
Thomas worked as a consulting engineer in Castlegar, he was the city engineer in Rossland for almost five years, and then worked as manager of engineering services in Langley, B.C.
His civil engineering experience and education focused on water, wastewater, and geotechnical but mostly civil engineering and subdivision design.
Thomas is a skier and fly fisherman. He chose Revelstoke for the lifestyle. “Even on our honeymoon we came to Revelstoke and skied here,” Thomas said. “My wife and I thought this was one of the best places we could be.”
Since taking over in November, he’s been working on aging infrastructure issues. “We have got a lot of aging pipes and roads. We need to start focusing on how to maintain them and replace them as required, so that’s definitely something that we’re working on,” he said.
“In 2013, we’re hoping to have an infrastructure strategy or framework to guide the development of an infrastructure plan, which will be a longer term plan looking at what things we can do to extend the lifespan of the assets that we’ve got.”
The thrust of the infrastructure strategy is to factor in very long-term costs. When you look at how much will it cost to service infrastructure over 100 years, what’s the best decision to make now?
He said the key is to build up reserves to back up the plan. “[I’m]looking at a longer-term plan that makes sure that we’re understanding what those bills that we’re going to face in the future are so we can start budgeting for those now.”
The main message conveyed when the City of Revelstoke announced its restructuring plan on June 5 was a focus on customer service. Thomas kept on message when talking about his expanded portfolio.
“I’m not a planner but I’ve worked with a lot of planners,” Thomas said. “I’ll be working a lot more closely with the building and planning department, making sure that these developments are continuing to move forward. It’s more of an oversight role rather than a direct, hands-on planning role.”
He is still reviewing the many ongoing planning processes that are underway, but said he couldn’t put on a timeline on the completion of the transportation plan, Integrated Community Sustainability Plan or items leftover following the collapse of the Unified Development Bylaw. “Those plans – there’s some great work in them – they’re going to be important for the future, but in terms of the impact on today’s developments, they’re probably not as important as keeping people’s projects moving,” Thomas said. “Really, my focus in the short-term is on keeping those developments that are in progress moving.”
To be extra sure, Thomas underscored that serving clients is the focus: “Anyone that is looking to develop, [I’m] making sure they have a smooth run through the process. That’s really my biggest focus right now – is keeping the customer service at a high level.”
He added the new manager of development services position will help him carry out his new planning duties.
What is Revelstoke’s future? Are we going to bump along at around 7,500 residents? Or will we experience rapid population growth? This question has been central to our planning debate for the past five or 10 years (those arguing the former are winning, by the way). What is Thomas planning for?
“We’re in the middle of some tough times [macro-economically],” he said.
In essence, Thomas said he believes Revelstoke’s development and its infrastructure development are at the whim of the global economy. A boom in real estate development can lead to revenues to the city through development cost charges, but that boom is dependent on the wider economy improving.
Nevertheless, Revelstoke is faced with aging infrastructure problems that resort development won’t solve. “We can’t rely on new development to replace our existing infrastructure problems,” he said. “The city will have a lot in its plate in terms of infrastructure.”
Again, he points to long-term infrastructure planning and building reserve funds to meet the challenge. Of course, huge-ticket items, like the proposed new sewer outfall, will require funding from other levels of government.
Thomas is a proficient social media user. He maintains a blog (urbanworkbench.com) where he writes about sustainable engineering designs.
It strikes me that there are two messages here. The first is the developer-friendly, customer-service messaging from city hall. The second is a blogger who, in his posts, focuses on how engineering can help solve sustainability issues.
Thomas explains they’re not mutually exclusive. As an example, he points to Mackenzie Avenue from Third Street to the end, which is very, very wide. “Is there an opportunity there to reduce the long-term cost of the road by reducing the amount of pavement?” he asked. “Maybe we can increase green-space, make these areas nicer to ride our bikes through, or walk as pedestrians – make it safer for kids to cross at crosswalks. Wider streets mean you’re on the road longer as a pedestrian.”
In this example, he believes the city can “reduce our long-term costs in terms of maintenance of asphalt and snowplowing, and [make] them great places to live and to walk and to work.”
It’s one example of sustainable thinking and budgeting Thomas would like to incorporate into his role moving forward.