Sal Stella has been appointed as the new public works director beginning July 1. | Maria Maxham/Editor

When Sal Stella was two years old, his family lived in Forest Park, but his parents’ landlord wouldn’t renew their lease because Stella was, apparently, too loud.

Now 44 years old, with a three-year-old and a two-year-old of his own, Stella has been appointed as the village’s new public works director, effective July 1, to replace retiring John Doss.

According to Mayor Rory Hoskins, Stella’s appointment was made by Village Administrator Tim Gillian and approved by commissioners at the April 12 village council meeting.

Stella’s been employed by the public works department since 1997, when he was hired as a summer worker while he attended college at DePaul University. In 2000, he was offered a full-time position with the village and finished his business degree at night.

In 2006, Stella got certified as a Class A Water Operator, one of only two public works employees with that license, and has worked as the village’s chief water operator, a position that includes ongoing measurement of chlorine in the drinking water and monitoring the pump stations, both remotely and in person, to ensure water pressure is acceptable. Stella said he takes and tests 15 water samples monthly to ensure safety, including samples from schools, stores and residences.

Stella inherits a department with an amazing reputation among residents but an ailing fleet, and addressing both of these are Stella’s priorities as the new director.

“Overall, I want to provide top notch public services to our residents. In the future, I want the residents to be able to voice their concerns and report any issues with ease,” Stella said.

He plans, of course, to address the elephant in the room, the outdated fleet and equipment, which is undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing him as the new director of the department.

“Public works has been begging for trucks for years,” Stella said, and he believes that the entire fleet will need to be replaced as repairs alone won’t fix ongoing and significant problems with the vehicles.

Recently, Commissioners Jessica Voogd and Ryan Nero have been spending time researching and discussing the need to take action on the problem. This past February, Voogd brought up the issue during a village council meeting, stating that although public works has done a great job with snow clearing, something they’ve been known for for years, she “wanted to address a larger issue.”

Not only has the department been operating with a reduced number of staff (Stella said there were 22 full-time staff members when he started in 1997; today there are 15 full-timers), but the department has been operating “with equipment that has long passed its useful life.”

Voogd said that in 2019, when she took office, it soon became apparent to her that the public works fleet was in dire need of replacement.

How dire? According to Village Administrator Tim Gillian in February, several vital pieces of equipment need to be replaced, and he says he can see the cost reaching $400,000 to $500,000.

“As our finances begin to stabilize as we come out of the pandemic and our economy returns, we will look into bank loans or leasing to replace the equipment,” Gillian said in an email.

But the problem isn’t new.

“For 10 years, Director Doss has been asking to replace aging vehicles, only for the proverbial can to be kicked down the road,” Voogd said. “And I know the village’s finances have been an issue for a long time. And I understand that a lot of this equipment that we need to replace is expensive. But ignoring our fleet and not planning for the future, we’re finding ourselves in a really tough situation.”

Stella acknowledged that continuing to provide the topnotch snow removal service the village is known for will be a challenge without new equipment.

“We have this amazing reputation,” Stella said. “How we’ve been able to do it with the equipment we have is a miracle.”

He said he’s been working with Gillian and Finance Director Tish Olmstead to find ways to finance the purchase of new equipment.

Another goal of Stella’s is to ensure that upgrades to the village’s water infrastructure continue, including replacing water mains and separating the sewer system.

Finally, he wants to take a hard look at updating, expanding or relocating the village’s public works facility, 7343 15th Street, which is in need of repair and is no longer big enough to accommodate the storage of equipment, especially if the fleet is updated and new trucks or machinery purchased.

Stella said his job is satisfying because he loves being outside and working with his hands.

“I love doing something different every day, and I like working to help beautify this town,” he said.

Good feedback from residents is what drives him, and he tries hard to communicate to people in town what’s going on with projects. For example, when a water main is being replaced, his goal is daily updates to the people affected by the work.

Working with Doss has been great, said Stella, who appreciates the fact that Doss isn’t a micromanager, focusing on providing instruction and allowing his employees to do their jobs. That’s a management style Stella said he plans to use as well.

I’m excited about becoming director,” Stella said. “I was honored when I was approached by Tim [Gillian] and [Mayor] Rory [Hoskins]. And I want to thank everyone involved in hiring me, including the commissioners.

During the approval of his appointment during the April 12 village council meeting, the commissioners, who unanimously approved the promotion, spoke about Stella’s vision and passion for the job.

“Sal is the right guy for the job,” said Commissioner Ryan Nero, who mentioned he’d had a chance to sit down with Stella and talk about the future of the public works department. “He’s got the love for Forest Park, the passion for the work. And on top of that, going into that discussion meeting, he had a plan for what public works looks like in the next three to five years. He already had prepared ideas on some things that he wants to do within the framework of public works, which is always great to see.”

“I think Sal brings fresh energy and excitement into the position,” Commissioner Jessica Voogd said. “And I know he’s open to trying a lot of things and being creative and even working on some of the problems we’re working on. And he’s had a lot of time with Director [John] Doss to kind of learn the ropes and how they successfully are functioning now.”

Dan Novak said, “Sal, we love you,” and Joe Byrnes stated that he agreed with the comments and assessments of everyone else, that Stella was the right person for the position.

About Gillian, who appointed Stella to the position, Sal said, “I couldn’t thank him more for trusting me.”

According to Hoskins, Stella’s salary will be $100,000.