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  • Writer's pictureRon Kotrba

Making Her Mark on Moline

Sarah Mark, the fleet and facilities manager for the city of Moline, Illinois, implements environmentally responsible changes in the municipality’s buildings, vehicles and fuels. But most importantly, she’s having fun doing it.

As fleet and facilities manager for the northwest Illinois city of Moline, part of the Quad Cities metropolitan area, Sarah Mark has a great deal of responsibility. She is in charge of the acquisition, maintenance and disposal of city assets, both “rolling and fixed.” Essentially, this means all city-owned vehicles and city-occupied buildings.

Mark has been in this leadership role for the city of Moline since January 2020, initially as the interim fleet manager when her supervisor retired. This past January, she was offered the position full-time. “I’m super excited,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like it’s already been a year and a-half. I love it. Every day is something different.”

She began her career in municipal administration at the utility billing division for the city of Ontario, California. After a year and a-half, Mark transferred to the city clerk’s office where she crafted agendas and other items for the city council. In 2011, she moved to the Quad Cities metro area and took a job with the city of Moline as a fleet administrative assistant.

“As I became more comfortable doing the job after five and a-half years, I asked for more responsibilities and took on more work. I started helping with more of the behind-the-scenes projects and putting together budget information and I received a new title as the fleet and facilities coordinator,” she says. From there, it was a natural step into the interim and then full-time fleet and facilities manager.

Advancing the Fleet

With a population of around 42,000, Moline is a small city by most standards. Even so, its rolling fleet consists of more than 300 on- and off-road vehicles and equipment. “It’s a little bit of everything,” Mark says. “From lawn mowers and end loaders to fire apparatus and sanitation trucks—anything you would see in a traditional fleet setting for a municipality, we purchase and maintain.”

Every vehicle in the Moline fleet is managed by the Fleet Maintenance Division. “We run our division like a business,” Mark says. “We charge a lease fee to the departments that utilize the equipment and take those lease fees and put them into a vehicle replacement fund. That way, when vehicles reach the end of their reliable, useful life, we have money allocated to purchase replacements without having to ask the city council to locate funding for us.”

While every day is different with new situations arising and proverbial fires that must be extinguished, Mark says most mornings are threaded with routine elements that make a daily pattern—albeit patchwork at best. “For instance, every morning when I come in, I check the fuel inventory to make sure we have enough fuel. I then meet with our parts and service specialist in order to be brought up to speed on what is in the shop and what is on the schedule for the day,” she says.

Moline not only provides fuel for its city-owned vehicles but also sells fuel to the neighboring community of East Moline and other local institutions.

“We sell fuel to the local community college, school district and housing authority,” Mark says. “We also serve as a backup fueling site for the Rock Island Arsenal, an Army installation. They had an issue with their diesel tanks a while back and, as they were mitigating those issues, they came here to dispense fuel. It’s a really good feeling knowing that we, as well as our customers who purchase fuel from us, are improving air quality regionally.”

The city of Moline is a member of the B20 Club, a joint effort between Illinois Soybean Association and American Lung Association.

The city of Moline was an early, progressive adopter of alternative fuels for its—and neighboring—fleets. The city began using B20, a mix of 80 percent petroleum diesel and 20 percent renewable, sustainable, low-carbon biodiesel in 2005.

“I cannot take any credit for the implementation of B20,” she says. The former fleet manager, J.D. Schulte, made the decision to switch over in 2005 without telling anyone in order to avoid the issue of ghost symptoms arising and being attributed to the new fuel—a not-so-uncommon occurrence resulting from biases against alternative fuels. After a month, with no differences noticed or complaints lodged by staff members, the cat was let out of the bag.

“That’s how the initial switch was made,” Mark says. “Since B20 is a drop-in solution, no infrastructure changes were needed to get rolling.” Naturally, the department stocked extra fuel filters because biodiesel acts as a solvent and helps clean out years of sludge left behind by petroleum diesel fuel. “We were going through a few more filters initially, but we anticipated that,” she says.

Although Mark says she cannot take credit for initially incorporating B20 in the city fleet, she adds, “I did, however, make the case to implement the extended and continued use of B20 all year.” For 15 years, the city had used B20 from mid-March to mid-November and then switched to a winterized straight petroleum diesel fuel for the colder months.

In 2020, before Mark’s promotion to interim fleet manager, her then-supervisor’s retirement was looming. “I took a proactive lead and began helping with fuel oversight,” she says. “I did my research and spoke a lot with my friend and colleague, Bailey Arnold, and presented my boss with the data to move our B20 use to year-round. I knew it made some people a little nervous since we had never done this before, but I was very comfortable with the decision.”

She says Pete Probst with Chicago-based Indigenous Energy, which works with the B20 Club of Illinois, provided solid data and documents needed to begin running B20 all year long. “They gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with it,” Mark says. “As W. Edwards Deming says, ‘In God we trust, all others must bring data.’ The data is there, and you can’t argue with it.” Even during the severe cold snap in February 2021, the winterized B20 posed zero problems for the city of Moline.

“B20 has been proven to not only work in the vehicles we operate, but it also helps reduce our carbon footprint,” Mark says. “With the education provided by the B20 Club, we found it to be the smartest choice we can make for our community. It’s not only sustainable, but is also good for the environment and cost effective.”

Bailey Arnold, a senior manager of Clean Air Initiatives with the American Lung Association and program lead for the B20 Club of Illinois, adds an important point. “Fleets are often hesitant to run biodiesel in equipment such as emergency vehicles and snow plows due to misconceptions around the fuel,” he says. Moline and the outside agencies to which Mark and her team provide fuel, however, power their fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles on B20 year-round. “Moline’s use of B20 year-round is a testament to the quality and performance of the low-carbon biodiesel available today,” he adds.

The relationship between the American Lung Association and the city of Moline was formed years ago, and it has gotten stronger over time. The Illinois Soybean Association and the American Lung Association teamed up in 2015 to launch the B20 Club of Illinois, and since the city of Moline was already using B20 for a decade voluntarily, the city was approached and asked if it would be an inaugural member.

“They were trying to get the club off the ground and since we were already using B20, they thought we could help raise awareness and educate other fleets,” Mark says. According to Arnold, “The American Lung Association recognizes biodiesel as a Clean Air Choice alternative fuel for its ability to significantly lower criteria pollutants and carbon emissions in existing diesel vehicles.” Compared to petroleum diesel fuel, EPA data show that biodiesel reduces carcinogenic particulate emissions by nearly 50 percent while reducing carbon by as much as 86 percent.

In 2020 alone, the city of Moline used nearly 60,000 gallons of cleaner-burning B20 biodiesel. The neighboring city of East Moline, to which Mark’s division provides B20 fuel, consumed an additional 22,000 gallons in 2020. The city also dispensed more than 58,000 gasoline-equivalent gallons of compressed natural gas and nearly 53,000 gallons of E85 ethanol.

Case, right, who serves as a biobased consultant for USB, introduces Mark to a host of biobased products to consider for the city of Moline.

But it’s not just alternative fuels Mark and Moline support. Biobased engine oils and tires are also gaining traction in the Moline fleet. Mark says she became aware of these novel biobased products through the B20 Club and American Lung Association’s work with the United Soybean Board.

“Chris Case from the United Soybean Board introduced biobased products to me,” Mark says. “He is a biobased consultant with USB who retired from the National Park Service after 38 years of service. He was kind enough to share his knowledge and broaden our horizons. One thing we discussed was, in this industry, there is a lack of awareness. That’s one of the shortfalls we see. People don’t know these types of products are available.”

Case introduced Moline to soy-based Goodyear tires. “It ended up being a great turn of events,” she says. “By May, we had already purchased 12 sets for police squad cars.”

Mark had also initiated the first piloting of a police car utilizing biobased engine oil. She says this pilot was conducted similar to how the city trialed B20 fuel. “We didn’t tell anyone,” Mark says. “The only people who knew were myself, our parts and service specialist, and one mechanic, and both were sworn to secrecy,” she laughs, adding that the city’s bulk-fluids distributor says the material is cost-competitive with conventional engine oil the city purchases.

Police vehicles provide a great opportunity to test the veracity of new, alternative products such as biobased tires and engine oils. “They’re going to have the most extreme driving conditions out of our fleet because they are hot-seated and drive on all three shifts. They have to quickly respond to emergencies, which often means that they are driven under conditions that would be considered hard on major components, so whenever we try something new, police squad cars are typically my go-to pool of vehicles to test things on,” she says.

Mark says she and Case even worked together on promotional videos to raise awareness of biobased chemicals and products. “These products are cost-competitive, available, and better for the end user and the environment,” Mark says.

When asked how she wants to take Moline even further on improving air quality and using renewables, Mark says, “On the consumables side, I’d like to see us implement biobased lubricants, grease, and hydraulic fluids. The problem is, a few products are not yet available to buy in bulk from our supplier. As they reach our distributor, we’d like to incorporate them.”

The city of Moline also continues to work with the American Lung Association and the B20 Club of Illinois on increasing its use of biodiesel and ethanol. “We’re looking to possibly move to B30 in the future,” Mark says. “As well as that, we’d like to introduce E15 at our on-site fueling facility. We do sell to outside agencies, and some fleets may not be able to switch to that seamlessly. So, there may be a few hoops to jump through, but the American Lung Association and B20 Club are willing to help us navigate through them.”

Buildings for the Future

In addition to being responsible for Moline’s city-owned vehicle fleet, virtually every aspect of city-building management and maintenance—from carpeting to windows, roofing and structural integrity—falls under Mark’s purview. Whether the library has drafty windows or City Hall is in need of foundation repairs, she is accountable. The city owns and occupies nine different structures at seven sites for which Mark is responsible.

She and her team must triage facility requests and prioritize the most urgent. “Today, for instance, we had a new generator installed at the central fire station, which also houses our finance department,” she says. “That took some time this morning.” The requests could be as routine or uneventful as low inventories on nonessential items or as extraordinary and pressing as no heat in the dead of winter.

A number of building improvements have been made since Mark took on greater responsibility with the city. “When I began working with the facility operations, I reached out to Bailey and the American Lung Association with questions I had about radon,” she says. The basement of Moline’s City Hall hadn’t been occupied in 25 years because radon—an odorless radioactive gas—was detected in the basement. “Because of our work with the American Lung Association through the B20 Club, I know this is something that can cause respiratory issues, which made the entire area unusable, wasted space,” Mark says. “With Bailey’s help, we were able to identify what was needed to move forward with a radon-mitigation system so the basement could be utilized again.”

One of the first improvement projects Mark tackled was an LED-lighting project. “We swapped out incandescent lighting in city buildings for LED,” she says. “It was low-hanging fruit that would give us the quickest return on our investment by way of lower utility bills. We did that in 2017.” The city is also in the process of replacing street lights with LED bulbs, which is being phased in over several years.

Facing the Pandemic Head-on

Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in changes—staffing issues, supply-chain disruptions and new protocols for city staff, a story told and retold the world over for the past year and a-half. Mark says she and her team worked on-site and in-person throughout the duration of the crisis, something for which she has been thankful and about which she feels fortunate.

“It’s difficult to be a brand-new manager and be available for employees while working remotely. We are considered ‘essential’ in public works, and if they were going to be on site, so was I,” Mark says, adding that she has been short-staffed since mid-2020 due to a hiring moratorium. “That had an effect on us,” she says. “We also had a freeze on purchases. We already anticipated an increase in costs for the higher-dollar repairs—failures occurring due to the age of some equipment. So, my team did more with less, basically, and they knocked it out of the park. Everyone has embraced this team mentality and the spirit of cooperation. We all banded together with no complaining, even while working a ton of overtime throughout a particularly icy winter while being short-staffed. I am so thankful for them. They’ve been absolutely wonderful.”

The freeze on purchases in 2020, which has been lifted, means a lot of effort was spent in 2021 making up for lost time and assembling vehicle specifications for new acquisitions. “We’ve been working feverishly to get specs together, gathering our estimates and submitting city council bills—all the documents needed to get vehicles purchased,” Mark says. “Because of delays from the manufacturers across the board, there could be a substantial amount of time between ordering and receiving equipment and vehicles.” She adds that this was pretty much part of every single day in the first half of 2021.

“It’s a little of a ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ situation, and now we are seeing repair delays due to parts availability being low,” she said in May. A lack of parts availability, which is one symptom of the broader, ongoing supply-chain disruption nationwide, is also putting a damper on maintaining the city-owned vehicle fleet. “But thankfully it is just a season,” Mark adds. “We will get through it and do our best to keep things rolling in the meantime.”

Like most everywhere, new cleaning protocols have been put in place in the city of Moline and Mark’s division. “It adds time to everyone’s day to have to stop what you’re doing and sanitize high-touch areas like doorknobs, faucet handles, and the coffee pots in the break room every two hours,” she says. “But everyone understands that those extra steps make a difference in protecting us all.”

When the hand-sanitizer shortage took place in spring 2020, The Mississippi River Distillery across the river in LeClaire, Iowa, became a community supplier to municipalities, hospitals, and the police and fire departments. “We got lucky and were able to get our orders in early,” Mark says. “They made pure alcohol for hand-sanitization purposes, and they made it available at a reasonable cost when there were shortages everywhere. It was a phenomenal display of community spirit during a very uncertain time. They had the ability to help, and they did. We bought small spray bottles and filled them with the alcohol, and gave them to our drivers to keep in their vehicles.”

She says the city’s risk-management personnel and on-site occupational-health nurse championed vaccinations once they became available. “We make sure literature is available and keep them displayed—Q&As, studies, things that we hope will encourage people to get vaccinated,” Mark says. She adds that, while as of May the city wasn’t requiring vaccinations, she and her counterparts at other municipal departments have tried to spread education about them as much as possible.

“The city worked with the Rock Island County Health Department and the National Guard to provide an on-site vaccination clinic to make the vaccine as accessible as possible for those who wanted to get it,” she says. “It was great, we had excellent turnout. We have been promoting vaccinations as a way to combat this virus—to get it out of this state of uneasiness and fear so that we can get back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Aspirations and Inspiration

Despite the stresses of her work and the responsibilities at her feet—not to mention the pandemic that took hold shortly after she assumed the full-time position of the fleet and facilities manager—Mark remains entirely optimistic and upbeat about her job.

“I have the best job in the city,” she says. “I get to interact with so many co-workers that I wouldn’t normally see or have the chance to work with in another position or department. Almost 75 percent of our workforce utilizes a vehicle or piece of equipment on a daily basis in order to perform their job. I get to hear what works and what doesn’t and improve upon what we purchase in the future. I’m lucky to love what I do. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

While she loves her job, Mark says she would eventually like to advance up the ladder and take over as public works director one day. “I can see that several years down the road,” she says. “I’m just getting my feet wet here, and I’m really enjoying it. I think I bring creative solutions to old problems, and I would like to see some of my ideas come to fruition—especially advancing to higher blends of biodiesel and increasing our sustainability efforts.” She also wants to investigate renewable gasoline. “I know they’re doing it successfully in Seattle, Washington, so I would love to see that here in the Midwest,” Mark says.

Arnold says Mark is not only promoting biodiesel in Moline and Illinois—or even just nationally. Mark went to Medellin, Colombia, to spread the good word about biodiesel in South America. “She’s making waves far beyond Illinois and the Quad Cities,” Arnold says. “She is one to watch, for sure.”

Managing vehicles and buildings may still be perceived by some as a male-dominated occupation, but Mark says she’s been fortunate enough to have been influenced by powerful, knowledgeable women in similar fields over the years—and they provided her with a great deal of inspiration.

“They were so vibrant, so smart,” she reminisces. “Seeing these women taking charge and doing their jobs as well as or better than anyone else could, it gave me the confidence I needed to realize I could do this job. I was concerned about not having the technical background and experience, but if you surround yourself with the right people, you don’t need as much technical experience. There are brilliant people you can depend on for that, and I do, every day. What I may lack in technical knowhow, I make up for with asset-management, lifecycle-costing and budgeting knowledge. I never thought this would be my career path, but someone had a bigger plan for me—and I’m very fortunate.”

When asked what advice she could give young women interested in similar leadership roles in oft-perceived male-dominated positions, Mark does not mince words. “I would tell them to lace up their steel-toe boots, put a hard hat on, and get out there, because there are glass ceilings in need of shattering,” she says.

Author: Ron Kotrba

Editor, Biobased Diesel™




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