The flag of Portage County. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Portage County Engineer Michael “Mickey” Marozzi is set to retire Friday, May 12 after serving in that position for over 34 years.
Portage County commissioners on April 27 approved Chief Deputy Engineer Larry Jenkins to serve as acting engineer until the Democratic Central Committee of Portage County appoints Marozzi’s replacement.
Ohio law dictates that since Marozzi ran as a Democrat, the county Democratic Central Committee gets to choose his replacement. If he had run as a Republican, the county Republican Central Committee would have gotten the nod, said Theresa Nielsen, deputy director of the Portage County Board of Elections.
Marozzi’s elected term ends Jan. 5, 2025, which means anyone interested in serving as the next county engineer must file for the March 2024 primary election.
His replacement will have big shoes to fill: Marozzi served nine consecutive terms as county engineer — and things certainly changed in those three and a half decades.
“I started Jan. 1, 1989, in the prior century,” Marozzi laughed, adding that he recently marveled at a large-screen computer in the office conference room. “When I started in this office, we didn’t have one computer on one desk here. Nothing was computerized. We had one typewriter with memory capability. That was it. Everything else was manual,” he said.
Another substantial change was daily mail call.
“When I first started in office, I used to get roughly two inches of mail in my in-basket every day. Now I’m lucky if I get one letter a day. Sometimes I go two or three days without a letter. Everything is done electronically. It’s changed a lot,” Marozzi said.
Even contracts are signed electronically these days, enabling processes that once took days or weeks to be accomplished instantaneously, he said.
From typewriters to e-signatures
For decades, Marozzi has walked a fine tightrope, balancing what he knew needed to be done with the money he had available to do it. From day one, he’s kept a keen eye on getting the most value out of the dollars he did have.
“The average person has no idea that we don’t have anywhere near the amount of money we need to take care of all the infrastructure that we are responsible for. They’ll never give us enough money to do the job right. It just isn’t going to be that way,” he said.
Marozzi’s answer was to focus on preventative maintenance work that he knew would stretch the life cycle of improvements he was able to afford.
“When I first started in office, we were doing almost no preventative maintenance work,” he said. “We didn’t have a budget for preventative maintenance work. Now we do several hundred thousand dollars of that a year.”
In 1989, Marozzi inherited a county that had 13 bridges closed because of poor condition. Almost 35 years later, that number has dropped to one: the Ravenna Road bridge near Towner’s Woods. Two others — one by the county engineer’s office on Newton Falls Road and one on Hankee Road in Hiram Township — have been replaced and will be open in about a month.
Construction on the Ravenna Road bridge will begin next spring at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Look for that bridge to reopen in “a couple of years,” he said.
Even though Portage County boasted 170 bridges in 1989, Marozzi was dismayed to discover that the engineer’s office lacked a dedicated bridge maintenance crew. Workers were simply taken off whatever road work they were doing and put on bridge duty, entirely on a piecemeal basis. That soon changed.
“One of the first things I did was create a separate, dedicated and equipped bridge crew that did bridge maintenance year-round,” he said.
When Marozzi started, the workers’ to-do list was based on handwritten slips of paper that someone would “try” to track in a notebook. Computerizing the department ensured that, at least theoretically, work orders would not slip through bureaucratic cracks.
“We now have a computerized system that tracks our maintenance work so if a citizen calls in and complains about a pothole or something in a road that needs to be repaired, we enter those complaints into a computer, and we print out work orders. We can track the work that we have done so we can know if we did something or we didn’t do something,” he said.
The sheer amount of work means the system is not flawless, he admitted, but he said errors have dwindled.
Marozzi also implemented annual crack-sealing and chip-and-seal programs instead of addressing road maintenance on a hit-or-miss basis.
Fixing bridges on a budget
There have been other challenges. Marozzi knew he needed more revenue to complete work that simply needed to be done, but he said it took him four tries to get Portage County commissioners to approve two permissive license fees.He said he first tried in the early 1990s; the commissioners finally approved in 2014.
Then, the commissioners reasoned, 65% of the county’s 370 miles of roadway were rated in poor condition. Of the county’s 170 bridges, 44 were rated as being in poor, serious or critical condition; 16 were load-limited; and four were in such poor shape they could not safely support emergency vehicles or school buses.
Funding had kept the county from averaging even three major bridge repairs annually, the commissioners said. Their solution was two $5 permissive license fees charged whenever a person applied to the Portage County BMV for a license. The fees would raise $600,000 to $700,000, funds the county’s infrastructure badly needed, they said.
Even though the fee now provides the engineer’s office with more than $1 million annually, increased construction costs more than wipe out the gain, Marozzi said.
“You have to increase revenue every year to keep up with inflation,” he said, noting that construction costs increase from 3% to 7%, or even 8%, every year.
Two cases in point: Marozzi said paving a mile of roadway cost $30,000 to $40,000 in 1989. Today, it’s $140,000 to $150,000. Also, an average bridge project increased from $250,000 or $300,000 to $500,000 “on the low side” and up to $1.5 million “on the high side” during the same time period.
“That’s what happens over 30 years,” he said.
Complying with new and frequent EPA and federal government directives also presented certain challenges, each one accompanied by dollar signs.
Marozzi recalled when the EPA implemented new air quality standards
“An unintended consequence of that was that all of us who were in the road-striping business, all of those striping machines that we had were set up and were running on oil-based paints. When they passed the new standards, it forced us to convert all of our equipment to water-based paint. We had to make all of our tanks stainless steel, and we had to completely redo the plumbing on the striping machine. It cost us $30,000 to $40,000,” he said.
Switching to water-based paint was also costly on an ongoing basis: Marozzi said oil-based paint lasts about 40% longer than water based, but he had no choice. Rules are rules, and his job was to find the money to make it happen.
“Some of these things are a little convoluted to the average person, but it’s the world I live in,” he said.
Shoes to fill
That world included always, always keeping an eye on his staff.
“I didn’t feather the employees or build the department up,” he said. “I have the same number of employees that I inherited back in 1989. A lot of folks think that the government just grows, it grows on its own. I’ve never done that. I don’t believe in that, and I’ve never done it,” he said.
A Marozzi shout-out to those employees:
“Over the years, I have been very fortunate and blessed to have had many very good employees work here. I’ve been very proud of what they’ve accomplished. Some come and some go, and I’ve seen a lot of employees retire since I’ve been here, but I would rack up the employees here with anybody’s group of employees. I’m very proud of what they do.”
To his successor, whom Marozzi said he hopes will be his chief deputy, Larry Jenkins, Marozzi has no words of advice other than continuing to keep a watchful eye on dollars and cents — and sense, as the case may be.
“In this business, you can get real carried away and spend more money than you have. It’s not difficult to spend money here,” he laughed. “Somebody has to be responsible overall for the total expenditure, for the total package. The buck stops here.”
Jenkins has made no secret that he wants to fill the remainder of Marozzi’s term.
A registered professional engineer and registered professional surveyor, Jenkins said he has been looking forward to stepping up.
“It’s been a dream for me,” he said.
Portage County Commissioner Tony Badalamenti had nothing but praise for the outgoing engineer but expressed confidence in Jenkins taking the helm.
“Mickey has done an incredible job for the county. He’s kept the bridges and roads going. He’s a great guy to work with. He’s going to be missed. Congratulations, Mickey,” he said.
In retirement, Marozzi said he plans to join his wife, who is already retired, with their six grandchildren. He looks forward to cheering them on at their sports events and attending their school programs.
Traveling may also happen, but family always takes precedence, he said. If there is a trade-off, he’s not interested.