Dan Schlaff has Kept the “Works” in “Public Works” for 37 Years


Dan Schlaff

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

Few of us think about what happens to our wastewater or where our drinkable water comes from unless it stops working. We don’t think about who works to clean the streets and parks for the public. But we’re glad some people do.

Dexter’s Public Works Superintendent, Dan Schlaff, has helped keep the “works” in Dexter’s Public Works for 37 years. Dan retired on July 1. He has kept that which is out-of-sight and out-of-mind working.

“It’s not just me.” Dan is quick to spread the credit for Dexter’s ship-shape utilities. “It’s past and present council members and a strong community base who pay the taxes that make us so strong. I’m very proud not only to be a member of the City Staff for 37 years but also a Dexter community member.”

Dan’s roots in Dexter run deeper than the 20 miles of drain pipes buried underneath the City. He is a fourth-generation Dexterite whose grandparents owned a dairy farm where Dexter Crossings is now located. He loves Dexter and always has.

“Milk that is milk.” Dan is a fourth-generation Dexterite whose grandparents owned a dairy farm where Dexter Crossings is now located.

In 1984, when Dan was a junior at Dexter HS, a friend of his father offered him a summer job at Dexter’s Public Works, which became a permanent full-time position after graduation. One of Dan’s first jobs back then was to trudge around town carrying a thick roll of account cards recording the water meter readings in the rain, snow, and summer heat. “These guys today have it easy. It’s all computerized now,” he laughs.

Dan quickly realized this was a 24/7/365 job. Dexter’s public utilities are divided into three departments. The Department of Public Works (headquartered behind the car wash) manages many of Dexter's visible elements, such as lights, parks, streets, and trees. The Water and Wastewater departments are located at the end of Huron Street and ensure clean water is delivered to us and the dirty water gets taken away and treated. Dan took the position of foreman over the Water and Wastewater departments in 2005. In 2012, he was promoted to Superintendent of Public Utilities, overseeing all three departments.

“We’ve had some major projects over the years at the Water and Wastewater,” says Dan. “We got rid of the big circular RBCs and installed activated sludge. We put in the EQ Basin for big rain events. We’ve revamped the two digesters.”

As with any professional, it takes a bit of code-breaking to know what they’re saying. “RBCs” are rotating biological contactors that neutralize organic pollutants. “Activated sludge” is another phase of wastewater treatment using a high concentration of microorganisms to remove organic matter. “EQ (equalization) basins” are large outdoor pools that aerate the water and prevent the raw wastewater from becoming septic. “Digesters” break down the organic waste.

Among its many other responsibilities, Dexter’s DPW is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of its parks. Monument Park in downtown sees regular crowd activity and remains the heart of Dexter’s cityscape.

For us, water needs are as easy as turning on a tap or pushing a lever. But operating the system that makes it possible is complicated and takes a high degree of training and certification. A few years ago, Dan oversaw Dexter’s largest infrastructure project at around $5.5 million to build new headworks for the growing City of Dexter.

More code. The "headworks" of a wastewater plant is the initial stage of the complex treatment process that reduces the level of pollutants in the wastewater to a level that will allow the treated wastewater to be discharged into a stream, river, or lake.

“The really big accomplishment, however, is that we’ve replaced 95% of our water mains in the old part of town since I’ve been here,” says Dan. He refers to “old Dexter” as the City minus newer developments such as Westridge, Huron Farms, and Dexter Crossings.

“The old water mains were put in around 1935,” continues Dan. “They were cast iron and lead jointed. Everybody knows what has happened throughout the state with the lead in drinking water problem. Dexter has been a leader in addressing that issue. In 2008, we built our own corrosion control system at the Dexter Water Facility to ensure that our lead and galvanized pipes weren’t leaching into our residents’ drinking water.”

“My point is that Dexter has been far ahead of the curve on upgrades of the Wastewater Plant, what we’ve don’t to replace all these water mains, and what we continue to do to make our community safe,” adds Dan. “I’m very proud of that. A lot of communities weren’t even thinking about that in 2008.”

Dexter’s Water and Wastewater Treatment plants comprise two of the three public utility departments.

As usual, Dan points to everyone working together as the reason for Dexter’s success. “We’ve got this strong community with a lot of really knowledgeable people that know where to put our money and what to do. We’ve got strong leadership at the top.”

When asked what he is most proud of, he points to his staff. When he became Superintendent, Dexter had four water/wastewater operators with 14 licenses between them. “Just barely enough to run the water/wastewater treatment plant,” says Dan. “Now, there are six operators with 62 licenses. My staff has been motivated and educated. Our staff with all those certifications, that right there is what I’m most proud of.”

In addition to water/wastewater, road repairs and construction, crosswalk projects, housing growth, new business construction, park development, 5G small cell towers, the needs for many downtown events, and many other things have to be managed by Dan’s department. And the Superintendent has to be ready to speak on any of it if the City Council asks. It’s a lot to track and manage. The success of which is why Dexter is such an attractive town.

So, with things going so well, why is Dan leaving? He is still young and has a wealth of knowledge.

“We’re staying right here in Dexter, but it’s time to move on to the next step,” he explains. “I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do and changed the culture at the DPW and water/wastewater. They’re doing a great job. It’s time for me to do something different.”

Dan was recognized with a proclamation at the June 27, 2022, Dexter City Council meeting, his last one as Utilities Superintendent. “We have a very special employee who will be leaving us after this meeting,” said Mayor Keough before reading the proclamation thanking Dan for his service. The Mayor and Dan have worked closely over the years as Dexter has grown.

Dan recounted a few memories to the Council that illustrates Dexter’s growth. He described how Dexter has gone from a “sleepy little village” to having tens of thousands of cars passing through it daily and people everywhere downtown seven days a week. “We should be proud of that,” he said.

He recalled tearing down barns and pulling up fences on Dan Hoey Rd for the new business park that would move the industry out of downtown. Dexter once had parking meters, and Dan remembers walking around with a sheriff’s deputy collecting the change. He noted the annexations of Westridge and Dexter Crossings and the challenges presented to the City. He remembered removing Mill Creek Dam and draining its pond where Mill Creek Park now exists. Dan told the Council that his least favorite job was getting up at 1:00 a.m. to sweep the streets with a push broom.

“I’m very thankful to be part of such a wonderful community as Dexter to live in,” Dan told the Council. “We’re so very lucky.”

It’s been said that the real heroes work behind the scenes, unheralded, doing what they do out of a sense of responsibility and conviction. Perhaps they also sometimes wear reflective yellow vests and a hard hat.

Congratulations, Dan, and enjoy your retirement!

City of Dexter’s Proclamation expressing its thanks and appreciation for Dan Schlaff’s 37 years of service.

Photos by Doug Marrin

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