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Head of water dept. to retire
Wayne Johnson set to leave city post after 34 years
W Johnson honored
Wayne Johnson receives his retirement proclamation from Mayor Jan Moore and City Council. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Wayne Johnson, 67, retiring as Statesboro’s water and wastewater director, leaves a system with more than 2.5 times as many customers as it had when he came to work for the city 34 years ago, but which sends a million gallons less waste water to the treatment plant each day than it once did.

Through the water reclamation system whose installation he oversaw in 2011, some of that waste water is now purified to the point that the city sells it to Georgia Southern University for use in irrigating campus greenery. On the water supply side, meter readers will soon be assigned to other duties, as water usage data will stream digitally to City Hall.

In 2004, Johnson served on a select committee that advised the Georgia Senate or revising protections for underground utilities. In 2005, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him to the Georgia Public Service Commission Advisory Committee, which he remained on until earlier this year.

But when asked what he’s proudest of, Johnson said “my employees” without hesitation.

“All my city family have been good to me, especially my employees,” he said. “They have done everything that’s been done. All I’ve done is give them the training and the tools and got out of the way, and I’m going to continue to fight for them and do whatever I need to, to protect them.”

He said he is proud of their “level of professionalism and training” and “the level of customer service” they provide.

Collectively, the Water and Waste Water Department’s 51 employees now hold 87 certifications related to their work. Many have more than the required certifications, Johnson said.

When Johnson first came to work for the city, the department had four employees, not counting the four meter readers who worked under the city clerk’s direction, he said.

He officially became an employee of the city, already as the department head, Aug. 31, 1981. But a few people whom Johnson chose have been city employees longer, since he came to work for the city by an unusual route.

In 1978, the city came under a Georgia Environmental Protection Division consent order to improve its handling of sewage, and set out to build a new, advanced wastewater treatment plant. Johnson, who had been in Ringgold supervising startup of its plant, was hired by the engineering firm Hussey Gay Bell in 1979 as a project manager for Statesboro.

When the city’s previous water director retired in June 1980, Johnson took over supervision of the small department while he was still on the engineering company’s payroll. He was paid from a grant that helped fund the wastewater treatment plant, and the city hired him when that funding ran out.

Not an engineer in the college-educated sense, Johnson had left high school his senior year and obtained a General Educational Development diploma. He then served a year in the Army Security Agency. Born in Oklahoma, Johnson did much of his growing up at Fort Benning, Georgia. His father was an Army sergeant.

After first doing water and sewer work in Dalton in 1971, Johnson went back to Oklahoma, where he took advantage of that state’s training programs to get his first certifications. Today, in Georgia, he holds top Class 1 licenses as a water and wastewater operator and is also certified as a laboratory technician in both.

Assistant Water and Waste Water Director Van Collins, hired by Johnson as laborer in the city department 35 years ago, is now in charge of daily operations. Johnson has been on extended medical leave since July, when he underwent surgical replacement of both knees. His retirement is set to take effect when that leave expires Dec. 31.

“Throughout the years, he has always encouraged me, as well as all of the other employees, to be the very best that we could be by attending all of the water and wastewater classes as well as acquire any and all state licenses in the field,” Collins told City Council.

After his remarks Tuesday, Collins gave the man he called “almost a father figure” a hug. The council and mayor presented a proclamation honoring Johnson.

System expansion

The upgrade of the system that Johnson oversaw in the early 1980s was only the start. The system that served about 5,200 addresses when he arrived now serves about 14,000.

In 1993, before the city expanded the treatment plant’s capacity from 5 million to 10 million gallons per day, the average daily flow had already topped 5 million gallons, Johnson said.

Contractor bids for the expansion came in at double the $8 million the city had available, he said. So the city acted as its own general contractor, and Johnson recalls that he once employed about 60 construction workers for the project, completed in 2000.

Since that time, with the help of contractors, the city has been replacing old water and sewer lines. This has reduced storm water intrusion into the sewers, so that even with business and population growth, the daily flow into the treatment plant has been cut to around 4 million gallons, Johnson said.

Most of the new water and sewer mains are funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. That way, Johnson notes, a large part of the cost is paid for by people who spend money in Statesboro but are not residents.

“Maybe one of the other things I’m proudest of is we’ve taken the water, sewer and waste water from being a liability to the taxpayer to be being an asset,” he said. “We actually generate enough revenue now that we contribute $1.2 million a year to the general fund to help keep property taxes down.”

Personal business

Thirty years ago, when Johnson began getting job offers from other places, the city could not pay him more. But city officials encouraged him to go into business for himself, expanding private water systems in the county after hours and on weekends, he said.

He owns several such private systems, and the older of his two sons, Eric, now owns and manages O&M Management Services, operating private water systems in several counties.

Johnson has a grandson here, Codi, who works for Whitfield Signs, and a great-granddaughter, Blakely, who recently turned 1-year-old. Johnson’s younger son, James, lives in Columbus with his mother, from whom Johnson was divorced in the mid-1980s.

His wife since 1991, Angie Johnson, died April 30 after spending the last several years in a nursing home because of an extended illness.

Since his knee surgeries, Johnson has no other health problems, he said. But the long medical leave showed him that he could, indeed, leave the job behind, so he knows the time is right, he said.

So he will have more time to spend on his hobby, building hotrods, and said he will be available to help Eric in the business as needed.

A different role?

Johnson owns houses in the county, but last year moved back to a home inside the city limits. He confirmed that he is considering running for a city government office.

Among the city’s department heads, he has been the most outspoken advocate for city employee raises after the recession-inspired freeze. In speaking to the City Council the past two years, he cited the need of the most junior employees to support young families.

“Our employees haven’t had a decent raise in eight years,” Johnson said in the last week’s interview. “Just like this year, they’re not getting a raise and the cost of living keeps going up, insurance keeps going up, and they’re struggling trying to raise their families. … I owe them.”  

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

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