City road crews are paving streets for the first time in several years after resurrecting once-defunct paving equipment — a welcome move in a city where street maintenance remains a top concern among residents.

What the city is getting out of using the equipment is the ability to tackle its most decrepit roads with a solution that will last for at least five years, and probably more than a decade. "Roads that have this type of repaving done can last for a long time," said Roads Supervisor Mike Ielmorini. "We pick the areas where streets have totally failed, those with too many potholes and cracks to patch, and we grind down the pavement, level it, prep it and lay down a two-inch overlay. We pick the areas where we can stay for a whole month and get as much done as we can."

Public Works Director Dan St. John pointed out that the two-inch-thick repaving the equipment enables is not the same as a complete reconstruction of the road, but is the longest-lasting remedy that can be performed before all-out reconstruction is required.

The city currently has no long-term funding mechanism to fully repair its failing roads and is looking at a possible sales tax measure in 2014 to fund the estimated $7 million per year needed to get Petaluma's roads back to a desirable condition.

The asphalt grinder that is now being used to repair roads was purchased during a time when the city had a much larger budget and wanted to begin repaving its own roads rather than outsourcing the work. But soon after buying the machine, the economic downturn hit Petaluma and caused layoffs that decimated the roads crew, making the machine essentially useless.

Instead of expanding the roads department, as had been planned before layoffs occurred, the crew was cut, leaving no one in the city who possessed the Class A drivers license needed to drive the machine from jobsite to jobsite. Ielmorini explained that current employees are not required to have a Class A license and that becoming certified would require a change to employee contracts.

In addition, another piece of equipment, the paving machine was not designed to work with the city's current dump trucks, which are required to accompany the machine during repaving. While new, compatible dump trucks may once have been planned as a later purchase, strapped city finances put an end to that idea. In total, the city logged only 12 hours of usage on the paving machine before relegating it to storage.

In November, the City Council voted to sell the barely used machine for a fraction of the $185,000 it paid for it in 2007. But when the city received no offers, despite only asking $70,000 for it, the Public Works Department decided to take a new approach. St. John challenged Ielmorini and the roads crew to see what they could do to make the equipment usable again.

"I thought that I had to find a way to use this piece of equipment," said Ielmorini. "It just can't sit. I'm a citizen of Petaluma and I want to see my tax dollars at work.

"I began calling the manufacturer, talking to different paving companies and figured out a way to retrofit the machine to fit our dump trucks," said Ielmorini. "The guys on my crew did most of the work themselves."

Ielmorini said the cost to retrofit the paving machine, which entailed building several new parts to make the grinder fit to the city's dump trucks, was approximately $2,000. "Frankly, it wasn't that expensive," he said.

Then, because no one in the city had the license to move the asphalt grinder to different locations, Ielmorini came up with another frugal solution. "It's being moved by CalWest Rentals," he said. "We just have them drop it in an area and it stays there for a month until we're done paving the streets in that location. Then, we have it picked up and moved."

The cost for this solution: About $200 per move. "It's also not overly expensive, especially when you consider what the city is getting out of it," said Ielmorini.

Road paving is a spring and summertime activity, and is limited by the city's small road crew's capabilities and availability. Ielmorini said that while most crews operate this machine with 12 people, he usually runs his crew with between six and eight people.

"It was the crew's enthusiasm that motivated this project," he said. "They were excited about putting pavement down and I'm really proud of their efforts."

St. John said that the street crew's efforts are an example of how leadership can come from anywhere within the city's organization, if employees are given the proper resources and encouragement.

"It took the crew themselves to come together as a team and solve the conundrum," said St. John. "They used their initiative to come up with a workable plan to put this machine back in service for the citizens."

Petaluma City Councilmember Mike Harris, who voted against selling the machine, said that in these days of cost-cutting and budget constraints, he is proud of these city employees who were able to rise to the challenge.

"Now we can focus on doing one of the core requirements of a city, and that's keeping our streets paved," said Harris.

The crew has already repaved Alma Court near Payran and East Washington Streets last week and will be tackling Willow Drive area this week.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at Janelle.wetz stein@arguscourier.com)