Always on call: Steve Stepniak
On snow clearing complaints, water-main breaks, and more
Photo by kc kratt
It’s almost spring. Can Steven Stepniak breathe a sigh of relief? Probably not. Spring snow squalls are not unheard of in these parts. And then there is the start of construction season and the continuing battle to fill the potholes that are the product of seasonal freeze-thaw cycles. A Public Works Commissioner must be ever vigilant.
Fortunately, Stepniak is a native East Sider, current resident of South Buffalo, and an avowed lover of all four seasons. Whatever is going on with Buffalo weather—and how it impacts garbage pick-up scheduling or the grooming of parks recreation fields or demands on the municipal water supply—he’s on it. He’s made it a habit to occasionally join the pothole-repair brigade or help street crews hauling garbage.
Stepniak considers it part of his job to know every aspect of the large department he oversees, including pubic works, parks and streets, and its 850 employees. He believes in accessibility—his assistant is used to folks marching into Public Work’s fifth floor City Hall office, asking to see the commissioner. When people call and ask to speak to him, they often express surprise and disbelief when the boss himself gets on the phone. “Dealing with the residents is the fun part of my job,” says Stepniak, a McKinley High grad who went on to Canisius College, where he studied communications and played baseball well enough to be signed by the Cleveland Indians. Playing in the minors, he suffered a rotator cuff injury that effectively ended major-league dreams. But pro baseball’s loss was Buffalo’s gain; Stepniak returned home and joined the Public Works Department as a general laborer in 1987.
Climbing the ladder of civil service tests, Stepniak quickly moved up in rank, serving three Buffalo mayors over the course of his career in public works. In 2007, Byron Brown tapped him to be commissioner of the department. In the decade-plus since, Stepniak has modeled a work ethic that combines ability, curiosity, willingness to do any job, and genuine pleasure in service. He is a big, buff guy, a youthful fifty-four, who has a treadmill in one corner of his office for the days when he really can’t get out to exercise.
Stepniak’s family includes his wife, Miriam, who works at Ingram Micro; their two sons, Matthew and Blake; and an older daughter, Michaela, a senior nursing student at D’Youville College. In winter, they can be found skating on their backyard rink, complete with a warming hut. In summer, they travel to an idyllic waterway in Quebec. Stepniak knows he’s blessed. He credits various baseball coaches as mentors and says he tries to lead the kind of life his father, the late Stanley Stepniak, a disabled Korean war veteran, led—devotion to family and work. It’s a fitting mantra for a career that spans three decades. We asked him how he’s meeting the challenges of his job:
Aging infrastructure. We had forty-plus water-main breaks in the past ten years. Working on modernizing all departments, like more energy-efficient pumps. We have 800 miles of piping in the city throughout forty-seven square miles of land. The goal is smart spending into our water system.
People complain that their streets aren’t cleared in timely fashion. Your response?
We’ve got supervisors in every district who know the areas intimately. We are ready to go when people have moved their cars out after overnight parking. For access in hard-to-reach areas, we have high lifts and bobcats. We hire contractors to help clear some city property.
What do you wish residents wouldn’t do?
Ignore parking restrictions. People don’t realize the one car that’s left there can screw up clearing the entire street!
Do you like snow? And weather drama?
I have to say my favorite season is the fall—with baseball playoffs. (I’m a Red Sox fan.) But I do enjoy winter. I enjoy the process, the systematic attack, the strategic plan of clearing streets. We have five plowing districts, and each has its own challenges. South Buffalo gets lake effect when other parts of the city don’t get touched. One of the tough parts for me is I can’t be there to play with my kids when a snow day is called—but that’s my job. We try to prepare, as best we can, for worst-case scenarios. I am in regular contact with meteorologists, and I try to stay on top of the ongoing science of forecasting. I am a fan of the seasons—I like Buffalo weather; it’s interesting.
What makes you laugh? How do you relax?
Well, I laugh at my own jokes, because no one else does. I am the best teller of bad jokes! Time with my family is time to relax. I do occasionally like a limoncello—that’s about it. I mean, I like to have a good time, but I am always aware that I have been handed an important responsibility. I am on call 24/7, and I have to be alert.