‘Tis the season to pick routes carefully, thanks to gaping, post-winter potholes that pock greater Burlington’s highways and byways. At the city’s Department of Public Works, three customer-service agents handle the flood of complaints from drivers who are fed up with being shook up. Hinesburg’s Valerie Beaudry, 39, has answered calls since 1999, while Charlene Orton of South Burlington, 40, has been part of the team since 2000.
Recently, Seven Days steered the pair into a discussion of pavement problems.
SEVEN DAYS: Do you get a ton of calls at this time of year? Is this the busiest time for you?
CHARLENE ORTON: Yes. Sidewalk plow damage, lawn damage and potholes. But winter is the busiest time of year for phone calls in general.
VALERIE BEAUDRY: Winter, we get all the complaints because we didn’t plow the street, or we damaged something or took out a mailbox. As soon as it starts thawing, then we get a lot of complaints on potholes.
SD: So, about how many calls do you get per day?
VB: There’s three of us here. . .
CO: And we have 10 lines . . . [Laughs.] But we don’t use all of those.
VB: I would say about 20, 25 a day in the winter and spring. About half are related to potholes.
SD: How do people usually express their complaints when they call in about a pothole?
VB: If they’ve hit a pothole, they’re usually very irate and they want it fixed immediately, and then they want restitution for any damage it caused.
SD: And what’s your response to that?
VB: We end up giving people who want to make a claim to our claims adjuster at City Hall.
CO: And we call the pothole in to the foreman so they can put it into their list to fill. And we also put it into the database, so when the hot-mix plant opens up, they can put hot-mix in and fix the areas that are really bad.
VB: That’s the middle of April, usually, weather permitting.
SD: This year, are there particular areas of Burlington that people are calling a lot about?
CO: For me, it’s North Avenue. But Main Street, that’s in pretty good shape.
VB: I hear a lot about North Avenue, Shelburne Road and Pine Street.
SD: What are some of the inappropriate ways people express their complaints?
VB: They have no problem swearing, calling us names. No problem — whether it’s potholes or we didn’t plow or it’s icy, they have no problem.
CO: And the positive ones are very far and few between. We get maybe two or three a season, somebody that calls and says, “You guys are doing an awesome job; we really appreciate it.”
VB: Most of the men will say that I should get off my lazy “rear” — but they don’t use that word — and go out and fill the potholes.
SD: What would be your ideal way of hearing a complaint?
CO: A lot of people call and say that a certain area is really bad, that we should take a look at it.
VB: If we don’t fill it that day, they get irate.
SD: So how long does it take to fill a pothole?
CO: I would say 24 hours, two working days, unless somebody got hurt on it or a car got damaged.
SD: Is this year worse or better than past years?
CO: It’s a little bit worse, because it’s been so wet and the coal patch doesn’t stay in the hole. The foreman will say, “We filled that yesterday,” and I’ll say, “They’re calling on it again.”
VB: They had to go back three times to a pothole on Shelburne Road because they filled it, it popped out, and they had to fill it again. The streets that are the worst are the ones that are in need of being repaved, or if there’s been a water break or a sewer break during the wintertime, it wreaks havoc.
SD: What about when you’re driving to work? Do you feel like you’re pretty savvy about the best routes because you know where all the bad potholes are?
VB: [Laughs.] Yes, we know how to avoid them. That’s one of our worst complaints, the people who call in saying they’ve hit the same pothole numerous times. We want to say, “Well, why don’t you pick a different route?”
SD: Are you more or less likely to make a complaint about something outside of your job?
CO: I’m less likely.
VB: I’m more likely to. I laugh and tell them I work for the City of Burlington and that we have potholes that are just as bad, and I let them know where they are so they don’t get people screaming at them like we do.
SD: What hours do you work and what kind of breaks do you get?
VB: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. We get a half-hour lunch and two 15-minute breaks.
CO: And the street guys work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
SD: What happens later in the spring and summer with the calls?
VB: We get sweeping complaints. The roads didn’t get swept, or their car got towed.
CO: In the fall, it’s the last-minute before-winter stuff.
VB: And Christmas-tree time in January — that’s often the worst time, because we’re picking trees up for weeks.
CO: Or leaves, in the fall. You can’t make everybody happy.
SD: So, when you’re getting those angry calls, is there a way you decompress and take a moment?
VB: If they’re that bad, we take a walk. During the February storm last year, I had one guy threaten to come down and deal with me and my family. Just because he wasn’t getting plowed — but hardly anybody was. We understand their frustration, but there’s nothing we can do other than pass on the information.
CO: A lot of people, I find, just want somebody to listen to them. To vent. You listen, and if they start swearing, you say, “Sir, please don’t swear at me,” and usually they end up hanging up on you. But sometimes their complaint is very valid.
VB: They leave some really nasty messages, too, on the voicemail that we check every day. This year was worse for complaints, because we kept running out of salt.
CO: People react because they can, right then and there on their cellphones. A lot of times when they get home, they forget about it.
VB: Unless they hit it the next day.