Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
County retirees amass more than 100 years
By William Kincaid
Operations manager Michael Borns, 65, Celina; engineer technician/surveyor Verno. . .
CELINA - The Mercer County Engineer's Office took a huge hit at the end of 2016 when three longtime employees retired after more than 100 years of combined service.
But the three men - engineer technician/surveyor Vernon Eichler, 69, Celina; operations manager Michael Borns, 65, Celina; and bridge worker John Menchhofer, 60, Coldwater - believe their replacements will do just fine taking over their responsibilities.
Borns, the most experienced of the trio with 46 years, came onboard in 1970 under the title helper. Since then, he held many positions before being named operations manager in 1987, serving directly under the engineer.
"Mike has been reserved in his advice," county engineer Jim Wiechart said at a retirement party last week. "He's never pushed me in any direction and I've been the recipient of some very wise advice from him."
Borns, who left the department for two years in the early '70s to serve in the military, multitasked, doing a little bit of everything - surveying, plowing snow and working on road and bridge projects.
"It's not just about us three. It's about everybody in this room. It's teamwork. I appreciate it," Borns said to loud applause from his colleagues.
Eichler was shot six times in Vietnam and spent a year in a hospital. Returning to his job at Huffy he found the workload too strenuous, he said.
"When I was in the Army in Vietnam, I was shot and all screwed up, so I knew my health would be bad as the years went on, so that's when I decided to come to the county, basically for the better health care," he told the newspaper.
Eichler started surveying and drafting, responsible for drawing maps, a task now done on computers. He too has held many positions.
"I used to draw everything by hand with an ink pen. Now you can just do it on a computer, draw all the maps. It's so much faster," he said.
Wiechart calls Eichler irreplaceable.
"I can't even attempt to quantify the amount of road, bridge and drainage projects Vern has worked on for our office through the years," Wiechart said. "He is our records expert as it relates to interpretation of road rights-of-way, drainage and other records."
During Eichler's tenure 367 bridges were replaced and 66 rehabilitated, he noted.
He also talked about the many ditch projects the department undertook in his four decades of work.
"We would survey it, draw up plans for it (to) basically clean all the brush off and clean it out," Eichler said. "And then it's put under maintenance by the county and then we maintain it and spray it every year."
Eichler and Borns recalled the Beaver Creek ditch project that took two years to complete beginning in 1985. The 36,800-acre watershed along 10.6 miles of the creek in Mercer County was extensively upgraded to increase water flow and prevent erosion to nearby land. Property owners along the creek continue to pay annually to keep the ditch free of noxious weeds and brush, to remove silt and prevent erosion.
"It was just a wall of cottonwood trees. That whole length of Beaver Creek was like that so the brush was taken off both sides. The ditch banks were pulled back," Borns said. "The cleaning improved it, but it but did not eliminate the flooding, of course. And with the new spillway, it's worsened the situation."
Borns and Eichler, who served under six different county engineers, also recalled a time when dynamite was used to raze old bridges.
Eichler was asked how the men knew how much dynamite to use.
"They didn't," he said with a laugh. "We hid behind a truck."
Menchhofer was hired in 1995 as a bridge worker. He had worked for a local contractor and at a feed mill.
The county, the men said, has a fairly large number of bridges - 392 - which are inspected annually and replaced or rehabilitated when needed. In the 1980s, the county began constructing its own concrete bridge beams to save money and give the bridge crew work to keep busy in the winter months.
"Over his 21 years here, we replaced 227 bridges and rehabbed 27 bridges," Wiechart said. "John worked on a great many of those projects. He had one of our 12 snowplow routes. He also worked on various guardrail/safety/road projects. His efforts on our bridge crew will be missed."
Looking back, the men said technology and computerization have helped the department become more efficient. Since coming on, Borns said the department has shrunk from 45 to about 26 employees.
With a bulk of the department's funding coming from gasoline and license plate taxes, which has essentially been flatlined over the last five years and material costs continuing to rise, maintaining the county's nearly 400 bridges and 384 miles of roads in the future will be difficult, the men agreed.
"Jim's trying to widen all the roads to make the pavement 24 foot by the year of 2024, but we're not going to get there I don't think," Eichler said. "The price has just went up so much for asphalt."
The department next year intends to intensify its chip and seal repair program to the highest levels in decades. The upsurge is due to escalating cost of asphalt and other materials and the deterioration of some county roadways.
"Something's going to have to change because we're sealing so many miles this year instead of blacktop and that's just because of funding," Eichler said.
But that will no longer be their concern in the new year.
County highway superintendent Brad Laffin will replace Borns, and the department hired Celina native Aaron Moeller to take on some of Eichler's duties.
Eichler said he's leaving because of health concerns.
"Otherwise I wouldn't retire. I'd keep working," he said.
Menchhofer, on the other hand, said he wants to enjoy time away from the job before it's too late.
"To be honest with you it's because my dad didn't (retire). He never made it," Menchhofer said.
"I'm like John. I want to get over the finish line, get a little bit of something (else) done," he said.