At the most recent monthly meeting of the Manchester Mayor and Town Council, Town Administrator Steve Miller sat beneath a large monitor and did what he has done for more than a decade — provided an expert opinion on issues of water management, zoning and development, and anything else the elected officials might need to help make their decisions.
But on that Oct. 8 evening, the TV monitors around the room carried not presentations by developers or budget figures or water allocations, but a continuously cycling series of tributes to Miller himself.
“Steve Miller, 40 years of service. Dependable, knowledgeable, resourceful, valuable,” the screens read. “Happy Anniversary 10/9/19, 14,609 days.”
“I knew the date was sometime in October but I didn’t know it was tonight until I was reading the sign up there,” he said in an interview after the meeting, though the actual anniversary would hit the next morning. “I’ll be here, like normal.”
But being there, for Miller, can mean a lot of different things. He might be answering the phone in his office, or heading out to a resident’s home to address neighborhood speeding — or he might be slipping on boots and grabbing a wrench.
“How many other town managers can plow?” asked Kelly Baldwin, Manchester’s director of finance, herself a 26-year veteran in town service. “How many can get in a sewer where there’s a leak and literally get in there and get dirty?”
Miller can, and does, hop in a snow plow in a pinch. He’s also fixed water leaks with the Manchester public works teams, and if he’s not actually getting his hands dirty, he understands the people who do. After all, it’s how he got his start four decades ago, working his way up through the public works department to become town administrator, and bringing those years of expertise with him.
“Steve as a resource for me, first as a councilman and second as a mayor, has been invaluable,” said Manchester Mayor Ryan Warner. “I’ve been there 20 years now and Steve’s been there twice as long as me. So when I was coming in as a young elected official I identified him right away as somebody who was a go-to person for knowledge, for historical relevance of any decisions to be made.”
The week following the meeting that honored Miller’s 40th anniversary, he led the way back through the town’s offices at 3337 Victory Street. Getting them built and opened in 2016, and allowing the town museum to occupy the town’s former office space on York Street, rank among Miller’s many proud accomplishments.
“I tell you, it’s a big change from what we had on York Street,” he said. “We now have our police department with us, we have admin, we have Christmas Tree Park, we have maintenance right down here. So this is like the new hub of the town.”
After showing off the town’s capacious filing room for plans and maps and its conference room, Miller sat down in his office to recollect the time when he had no office to speak of.
It was the late-1970s and Miller had graduated high school when the Town of Manchester offered him a summer job working on a water main project.
“I said, ‘sure, I can fill in for a little bit,’ not even thinking I was going to stay here, because at that time I was pursuing some other jobs,” Miller said. “I helped with the water main project. Also, at that time we had a garbage truck, so, of course, I picked up garbage on Mondays and Tuesdays.”
The town hired him on for the rest of the year, though his salary was initially paid through a grant from the state of Maryland.
“I worked under that program for probably two years, till 1979, and then they actually brought me on as a full-time town employee,” Miller said. “That’s actually when the 40 years started.”
Of course, full-time picking up garbage and sweeping roads in 1979 was a minimum-wage gig.
“I can remember I was only bringing home like 100 bucks, $125 a week,” Miller said.
But where some people might have moved away to look for other work, Miller kept learning and working his way up in the town. At some point in the 1980s, he said, the town offered him a job at the wastewater treatment plant.
“At that time it was only 20 hours a week down there and 20 hours still at maintenance," Miller said. “They paid for my education — and we still do that today for all of our employees if it’s related to the job. I attended Frederick Community College and took courses in water and wastewater and eventually ended up a full-time water and wastewater operator.”
Miller laughed as he reflected back on how times were different then, if just in how he went about reading water meters.
“People don’t believe this, but we read water meters and people would leave their basement doors unlocked, or their back doors,” he said. "You had to go inside to read the water meter. You would walk right inside their homes. You would knock, open the door, “Water meter man!”
Nowadays, Miller said, water workers can stand at the end of the block, press a button on a device and read all the meters in the neighborhood.
After about a decade at the water plant, Miller took on a management role there for another five years, an experience that has given him a lasting appreciation, and knowledge, for that side of public works that lasts to this day.
“I really do think that public works people don’t get the credit they deserve,” Miller said. “There used to be a running joke way back when, 40 years ago. ‘Where’s the mayor’s son working? Oh, that deadbeat, they sent him down to the water plant!’ That was the running joke. But people don’t understand the training and the education that goes into these guys to work at a water and wastewater plant.”
Water workers in Manchester have to provide clean, safe drinking water to more than 5,000 people from 12 wells, Miller said. They have to test the water at each site for pH and chlorine every day. There’s math and engineering involved.
In the mid-'80s, Miller helped with a spray irrigation project, where during the warm months of the year the town began spraying treated wastewater on farmland rather than discharging it into a stream.
“I enjoyed working on that project, and I still enjoy working on that project,” he said. “We are working with a group from the University of Maryland Conserve program. Eventually they’re going to actually take a plot of that property, a small plot and plant vegetables to see what effect the effluent, the treated water, has on the plants.”
By the late-’90s, the town was looking to consolidate public works under one director, and Miller once again got the nod.
“Dave Warner was town manager at the time and he asked me to take over public works, that way I would have parks, maintenance, water, sewer, roads,” he said. “I said, ‘yeah, I’ll try it. That’s no problem.’”
Miller was there until in 2007, when Manchester needed a new town administrator, and he was it.
“And I’m still here,” he said.
And for how much longer? He’s not retiring tomorrow, but as he joked with people at the Oct. 8 town council meeting after watching the TV monitors flashing stats in his honor, Miller isn’t putting in another 40 years.
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“I had to sit there and watch that the whole meeting and then the addition is going off in my head. OK, I’m 60 years old. I’ve got 40 years served. Another five years I’ll be — that’s not going to happen,” he said with a laugh.
When the day comes, Miller will leave large shoes to fill, according to Warner, perhaps too large.
“When the time comes to replace Steve Miller, we likely won’t be able to replace him at the level he is able to accomplish things with just one person. We will have to redefine some roles in order to cover everything that he is able to do for the town,” Warner said. “I think Steve has a lot left in the tank and I hope he chooses to stick around for a few more years.”
And what advice would the man himself give for his eventual successor?
“You have to be able to interact with the public. You have to be able to communicate with the public,” Miller said. “You can’t communicate by email or a phone. You have to get out there and meet the residents face to face.”
That, Miller said, and you have to be comfortable with managing the not always manageable.
“You cannot have a list of things to do. You get on the job at 7 a.m. and your whole day is shot because you have a sewer back-up. Or your whole day is shot because someone wants to meet with you at the ball field. That’s a challenge,” he said. “I enjoy that challenge.”