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If Howard County government had a hall of fame, Jim Irvin, the longtime director of the county’s public works department, would induct Steve Gerwin without a second thought.
Gerwin, the head of the county’s utilities bureau, is lauded by co-workers and elected officials for his instrumental role in steering the bureau, which manages the county’s water, over the last nine years.
The utilities bureau is one of the public works department’s biggest components, serving roughly 85 percent of the county’s population with an average of 22 million gallons of water daily. The bureau’s budget request for next year is $74 million.
Gerwin, a 62-year-old Silver Spring resident plans to retire at the end of May to join his wife of 30 years, who is caring for her elderly mother.
“The citizens here have been really lucky to have him,” Irvin said. “He’s done more things to help people than anyone can really imagine. The biggest thing to me is he’s just such a personable person… he’s always there to help anybody. The water and sewer business is a 7-days-a-week, 24/7 operation. He’s always going the extra mile to make things happen.”
Gerwin’s work ethic – from his willingness to give out his cellphone number to residents dealing with water main breaks or helping employees struggling with financial difficulties – will make it challenging to find a replacement, county officials said.
County Councilman Greg Fox, who has known him for roughly 20 years, said the way Gerwin handled residents experiencing problems with water and services was outstanding.
“He’s a straight shooter and was just about getting things done,” Fox said. “It’s going to be tough to replace him.”
Although not accustomed to receiving accolades, Gerwin said his mission in leading the bureau has always been client-first. Implementing that vision, he said, is one of his biggest accomplishments.
“Our approach is that we operate like Macy’s. We have to make sure that we treat each customer well enough that they want to come back to us,” Gerwin said.
In 1972, the passage of the Clean Water Act, which regulated the release of pollutants in the country’s waters, pulled Gerwin into the field as a high school student. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in civil engineering in 1979 and joined the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water and sewer provider in the Washington suburbs.
During his time with the county, Gerwin said the most significant challenge was hiring workers in their 20s and 30s in a field traditionally occupied with workers and utility staff in their 50s and 60s, he said.
“Our goal has always been to find passionate people who care about what they do,” he said.
Of the many water main breaks and sewer challenges in the county, Gerwin said the Ellicott City flood last July tested his department’s ability to complete repairs and restore service to old Ellicott City. Rebuilding and restoring the area, an effort that is ongoing, was the biggest challenge, he said.
“When you have emergencies like snow storms or tornadoes, it’s usually over in three days. That was really a month of emotional and physical exhaustion. It hit very close to home,” he said. “I have 147 people working on everything for me. They’re the ones working behind the scenes to make things happen.”
The county has begun the replacement process. Art Shapiro, the current deputy bureau chief, will serve as acting director until a replacement is hired.
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