On February 11th, 2021, the longest serving employee in La Paz County history retired. Tom Simmons, who began his career when the county was first formed in 1983, ended a remarkable 38 years working in the County Public Works Department. When Tom started his career with the county, Ronald Reagan was the President, gas was 96 cents a gallon, the video game Mario Brothers was released and the La Paz County Board of Supervisors was comprised of Maryetta Tsosie (District 1), Don Denton (District 2) and Wayne Sweetland (District 3).
Tom was born in California and moved to Parker at age 12. A 1974 graduate of Parker High School, Tom explored most of the western United States after graduation. It was during his time in Utah and Colorado, in the late 1970s, when Tom became skilled working heavy equipment and mapping the field for uranium exploration.
“At that time I was chasing work, and my former roommate, Mike Hill, contacted me and asked if I wanted to try working in uranium exploration,” Tom told Parker Live in an interview. “I thought it would be a good opportunity and I definitely benefited from that experience.”
For a brief period of time Tom also worked as a grade checker for the Central Arizona Project.
In 1983, after intense public debate, northern Yuma County broke away from Yuma County and La Paz County was formed. At the time Tom was working in Vista, California and was recruited to work for the newly established county. Al Dent, the first Public Works Director for the county, recruited Tom.
“Al said he really wanted me to work there and I thought it would be nice to return to the county. I love it here,” he said.
Tom accepted a job with the Public Works Department and, as the county motto states, his future became unlimited. Public Works is responsible for paving and maintaining roads, installing and maintaining culverts and bridges, and maintaining county vehicles.
In 1983, Public Works had six employees; the Director, Deputy Director, 3 field workers and one office administrator. As a field worker, Tom’s original duties were to drive a water truck and be field labor. After four months on the job, Dent figured out Tom could operate heavy equipment, so Tom took on those additional assignments.
“One day I was at one of the open pit dump sites. In those days each townsite had an open pit dump and Public Works was responsible for keeping them operational using heavy equipment. Wayne Arrington, my supervisor, said he would show me how to run a dozer and I just played along. He didn’t know ripping and moving dirt was my wheelhouse. Anyway, after I started running the dozer, he watched for about one minute and then drove away. From then on I was running a dozer.”
In 1992, Tom was promoted to Deputy Public Works Director and by then the department had grown from its original 6 employees to 16 employees. The growth of the department was needed to reduce the amount of work that had to be outsourced. “Outsourcing can cause a project to double in cost,” he remarked.
A decade later, Tom was promoted again, this time to Interim Public Works Director. Not only is Tom the longest serving employee in La Paz County history, he also holds the distinction of being the longest serving interim department head in La Paz County history. Tom served as Interim Public Works Director for 14 years until he was finally given the job on a permanent basis in 2016. There has been a long running joke among Public Works officials throughout the state. When Tom would attend statewide meetings his colleagues would invariably ask him if he was ever going to get the job. “I always took that joke in stride,” he said.
Without hesitation, Tom states the greatest accomplishment for Public Works was paving the county’s roads in the 1980s. Prior to 1985, all of the roads in unincorporated La Paz County were dirt. The dirt roads created an enormous amount of dust, which became a source of significant discontent countywide. “Back then dust caused a lot of complaining around the county,” Tom said. In response, Public Works used the fastest, least expensive method, to pave the roads; aggressive oil was applied to the dirt, the oil cured for one month, and then a coat of chip seal was applied. It worked extremely well and the county still uses this process to this day. Currently, unincorporated La Paz County has approximately 1000 miles of roads and 250 miles are paved.
Over his 38 years with the county, disappointments were few and far between. In general, Tom’s biggest disappointment has been the dismantling of the Public Works Department in recent years. In 2010 the county began to decrease funding for Public Works. Wages started lagging behind other counties, according to Tom, and attrition led to vacancies, which turned into unbudgeted positions, and unbudgeted positions led to positions being eliminated. The county stopped purchasing major equipment for a long period of time and in 2016 there was a major reduction in force.
“Around 2013 the department had 42 employees and now there are 18. Of the remaining 18 employees, 7 are mechanics, and 4 are in administration,” he said.
The county now uses its Salome yard only for fueling and has closed it for all other purposes, according to Tom. Tom hopes that one day the county will restore the department back to a fully functional department that does not rely on outsourcing.
The greatest Public Works challenge for the county currently is maintaining the roads. With a skeleton staff, and reduced funding, road maintenance has been delayed considerably, causing degradation to many of the county roads.
“La Paz County once had the smoothest dirt roads in Arizona, now the dirt roads in La Paz County are the roughest in Arizona,” Tom told Parker Live. “That is the result of proper road maintenance not being done.”
Outsourcing and loss of funding has caused delays with big projects as well. Big projects on the horizon for the county are Riverside Drive (6 miles), Alamo Road (33 miles) and Vicksburg Road (8 miles), which all need significant maintenance. Ironically, in 2014, the Riverside Drive project was fully funded, as a line item in the budget, and at some point Tom says the funding was removed from the budget and the project was never done.
“The Riverside Drive project funding disappeared.”
Overall, Tom has been very pleased working for La Paz County.
“La Paz County has been very good to me and one of the most enjoyable things about working for Public Works was travelling around the county and taking in the natural beauty and solitude of the area. La Paz County is really a beautiful place. The job was never boring, there was always something new, and my coworkers became family to me. I miss seeing them regularly.”
Tom has no plans to leave the county in retirement. He plans to continue to live near Poston and tend to his 7 acres with his wife Joanna. He also plans to spend a lot of time visiting with his daughters, Megan Spielman, the current La Paz County Administrator, and Kristy Gonzalez, and his grandchildren.
Facebook comments on this article can be found HERE.