Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Telescope

September 21, 2013

Preparing for retirement

Weirton native looks back on accomplishments

PRINCETON — It’s a big facility and few of Princeton’s residents have visited it or even know how to find it, but it’s essential to the community’s quality of life. Now one person who helped guide the plant to its present form is about it tell its personnel and the city of Princeton goodbye.

Michael E. Saffel, general manager of the Princeton Wastewater Treatment Plant plans to retire soon after a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the plant’s expansion and improvements. He came to Princeton in July 1986 after managing the wastewater treatment plan in Weirton.

Saffel pointed out a wall in the Princeton plant’s new learning center. There were lines of plaques, letters of commendation and photographs chronicling what the sanitary board’s personnel have accomplished. The plant was named West Virginia’s Most Improved Plant in 1987 and the best in West Virginia when 1988 arrived. In 1989, it was again named the best in the state and the best in the federal EPA’s region; the Princeton wastewater plant was compared to other plants in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

The sanitary board spent much of the 1990s expanding the wastewater plant and upgrading its equipment, but an especially important award was added to the learning center’s wall recently.

“This year, 2013, was a great honor for the sanitary board and me, it acknowledged the accomplishments of Princeton and awarded Princeton the 2013 Operations and Maintenance Award. This came from DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), who are our regulators, so anytime your regulators think you’re doing a good job, you must be doing something right,” Saffel said. “It was the employees’ and the board’s time to shine.”

Saffel couldn’t attend the award ceremony at first, but he was encouraged to come anyway. That’s when he learned that the DEP had awarded him the West Virginia Environmental Stewardship Award. This is the highest honor they can give to a citizen for environmental accomplishments, he said.

“That’s the state acknowledging that throughout my career I definitely tried to make a difference,” Saffel said.

Saffel is a Weirton native who graduated from Weir High School and attended Jefferson Technical College. He was drawn into the public sanitation profession when a relative told him about a job opening.

My father-in-law was a foreman for the Weirton Sanitary Board,” Saffel said. “They needed someone to work on their equipment because they didn’t have a good maintenance person. I pretty much started repairing equipment and I guess they figured I was an asset, so they gave me a job. I was going to school, so I worked in between what hours I could and went to school what hours I could.”

Saffel started working for the Weirton Sanitary Board full time in January 1980. By 1983, he was the maintenance manager and operator. He was later offered the position of chief operator, but he agreed to accept it only if his fellow employees agreed. He wanted to be their leader, not their boss.

“I’ve always been big about that,” Saffel said. “I never wanted to be a boss. I don’t mind being a leader, but I don’t want to be a boss. There’s a difference. If you’re a leader, people will follow you. A boss, people will resent you. I talked to the guys up there and I took that job, and that eventually led into my position as head of operations and engineering.”

Saffel said administering the Princeton Sanitary Board means working for a unique utility.

“We are a public nonprofit utility. If you’re talking about the gas company, you’re talking about the electric company, the TV cable company, everything you have there public or private for profit utilities,” Saffel said. “The rules we work by are different from any other utility. I’ve always tried to be the true definition of a public servant, because I work for the public. And it’s my job to take their money and invest it and use it in the best manner that I can, and in a way that they would approve of.”

Saffel added that he keeps a particular thought in mind when making a decision for the sanitary board.

“How will it affect fixed income people? Am I using this money wisely or is this a frivolous expense?” he said.

The path to Princeton opened up in 1986 when the Weirton facility won the very first Best Operated and Maintained Treatment Plant in West Virginia. Saffel went to the awards ceremony in Beckley and encountered Bruce Fox with the Princeton Sanitary Board. He persuaded Saffel to take a “side trip” and see Princeton’s plant; it had serious problems. Princeton’s mayor at the time, Jim Cannon, offered him a job with the Princeton Sanitary Board; the offer was made “two or three times.”

Saffel hesitated to accept because he liked working in Weirton, and his family was there. Fox warned him that accepting the Princeton job could be the worst job choice of his life: The longest time the sanitary board had kept a manager was five years and three months. Saffel said he decided to consider the move anyway because he could not turn down a challenge.

“I talked to my wife and I said ‘honey I think I could help these people,’” he said.

Jo-Lene R. Bish Saffel was reluctant at first to make the move to Princeton, but her husband made a promise: Next time we move, you pick where we will go.

“And she said, ‘Agreed.’ It was never said again; it was thought about again. We came to Princeton, and you can see what we’ve done.”

The decision was made, and on July 15, 1986, Saffel started working for the Princeton Sanitary Board.

Saffel said he faced a lot of problems during his years at the sanitary board, but it has a lot of good people to work with. He had thought of retiring seven years ago, but he wanted to see the conclusion plans to expand and improve the wastewater treatment plant.

The new technology is now in place, so the plant can serve more customers, both in and around Princeton, for the foreseeable future. A ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the expansion has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 24.

And Saffel knows where he is going to go next. He had thoughts of retiring at Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, Tenn. His wife said nothing while he speculated about those possibilities, but when the decision to retire was made, she reminded him of a promise made years ago.

“She said, ‘Uh uh, do you remember when? You promised me I could pick the next place.’ And I said, ‘You’re right. Where do you want to go?’ And she said, ‘I want to go to Gettysburg.’ She has no relatives there now, but her heritage is there, her family was there. And she loves that area. I’ve bought a house in Gettysburg and that’s where we’re going to go.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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