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Outgoing Memphis Public Works Director Reflects On Career

Q & A with Dwan Gilliom

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Memphis Public Works Director Dwan Gilliom fought back tears when asked what he'll miss the most when he leaves his position at the end of July to accept a job as the Public Works director for Shreveport, Lousiana.

"The people," Gilliom said, pausing to stave off the waterworks. "I've developed great working relationships with so many people in city government and across the community over the years. Every time I think about it, I tear up."

Gilliom enrolled in the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) in January 2013. DROP allows city employees who plan to retire in two to three years to stop contributions to the retirement plan. Once they enroll, they must retire.

Gilliom got his start in public service as a Memphis Police officer in 1985. He went on to work for the federal government through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in Atlanta in 1999 before moving back to Memphis in 2002 to take a job heading up the Mayor's Citizens Service Center under Mayor W.W. Herenton. Herenton eventually convinced Gilliom to take up the helm in the solid waste division and then, in 2007, in the Division of Public Works. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: You've put a lot of emphasis on fighting blight.

Gilliom: We've gone from cutting [overgrowth on] around 7,000 vacant lots a year to almost 40,000. We have an issue with property owners not maintaining their own property across the city, so we spend an excess of $3 million a year caring for vacant properties that we don't own. We send them bills, but very few pay. We collect around $300,000 each year.

We've increased the number of residential demolitions. I think we're averaging now around 750 to 800 demolitions [of blighted homes] a year.

You had an especially rough winter this past year with all of the potholes.

It was one of the worst winters that I've experienced as the Public Works director. I can recall years of being hailed as a hero, when in actuality, we'd get an inch or inch and a half of snow, and the sun would come out the next day and melt the snow away. And people would think that I had treated all of the roads since the snow melted away so quickly. But it doesn't work the same with ice. And we had a lot of ice this year, and all of a sudden, I wasn't the hero that I had been in years past.

A couple years ago, the city was hit with a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after our sewage overflows were found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act. Was that a blow?

We negotiated one of the best consent decrees across the nation. Other cities are seeing consent decrees being imposed as high as $6 billion. And ours is $250 million, which might sound like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket compared with what other cities are having to spend to take care of their infrastructure issues.

You oversaw the implementation of single-stream recycling.

That's probably one of my proudest moments, even though "pay as you throw" has been one of my darkest moments. Our curbside recycling program had been dormant for 15 or 16 years. We had averaged around 10,000 tons a year, and we had fallen down to just over 9,000 tons.

So we assisted our recycling processor, who invested about $5 million into their facility with the understanding that we would begin to phase in the 96-gallon containers versus the small carry bins.

We purchased the first 40,000 containers about a year ago, and we saw our volume increase in that area alone 300 percent. And now we're beginning to issue those containers to anyone in the city who requests one.

But your "pay as you throw" idea didn't work out.

"Pay as you throw" means that anything outside of the recycling or garbage container must be pre-paid for, either through pre-paying for a bag or a tag. More than 6,000 cities across the United States have a "pay as you throw" program. The fact that we allow our customers to discard everything and expect it to be picked up within a week or two is outrageous.

We had coined the phrase SMART program, which stands for Save Money and Reduce Trash, and one councilmember indicated that it was the dumbest thing she'd ever heard. I couldn't help but laugh. I sensed there was no support on the council, so we killed the idea after that meeting. I think it'll be a long time before it comes up again. And I would advise the next person not to call it a SMART program.

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