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Working above and below the city streets

Edward Doherty’s career path was determined in 1961 when, as an 11-year-old living in the New York City area, he heard President John F. Kennedy during his inauguration tell Americans to ask not what their country can do for them but rather what they can do for their country.
Doherty, 55, recalls “being inspired by that and thinking public service was the way that I would do that.”
He has been with the city of Rochester for more than 30 years, the last 19 as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services. In this role, Doherty oversees 650 full-time employees and a $110 million budget that is larger than any other city department.
As the city’s budget director before that, he helped author the Morin-Ryan sales tax plan adopted in 1985. His budget background thrust him into the spotlight last fall as the city arranged to buy and operate the much-publicized high-speed ferry.
Doherty came to Rochester to attend St. John Fisher College. After graduating in 1972, he worked for two years in the budget office at Rochester Telephone Co. He took a job as a budget analyst with the city of Rochester in November 1974.
Doherty has been a city employee ever since. He spent his first 12 years in financial roles, including four-and-a-half years as budget director. In 1986, he was named commissioner of environmental services.
“My dad was a New York City bus driver, and I always had that image of serving the public that came from that,” he says. “You don’t necessarily know what that means when you’re younger. At one point I thought I wanted to be a planner. But this ultimately proved to be a very good fit for me.”
Environmental services is made up of the city’s public works functions, including engineering, architecture and physical development. Doherty also is the authority for refuse collection, street cleaning and maintenance, street lighting, and snow and ice control.
“I’ll be out someplace and there will a pothole in the street,” he says, “I’ll look at it and say, ‘That’s not my fault, right?'”
Doherty also is in charge of the city’s water system, maintenance for city-owned vehicles and buildings, and the city’s environmental management group, which is focused primarily on brownfield reclamation projects.
“Ed is a high-energy person who is thoughtful, thought-provoking and has a broad vision of the issues,” says Vincent Carfagna, city finance director. “I’m not one that generally glows about people … but I mean that about Ed.”
Carfagna has known Doherty for 25 years.
“I consider Ed a friend,” Carfagna says. “I consider Ed a confidant. He’s a person I trust. He’s someone I can go to to share ideas.”
Doherty earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from St. John Fisher, specializing in urban sociology.
“I took every urban sociology course I could,” he says. “I took urban planning courses. So I did have that kind of urban interest. Born in Brooklyn, I always wanted to work in the city.”
Doherty thought his graduate degree would be in planning until deciding he preferred “the hands-on stuff.” He received a master’s degree in public administration from SUNY College at Brockport in 1981.
His intent was to return to the New York City area to embark on his professional career. But he could not dismiss the memories of a nearly two-hour commute each way from the family home on Long Island to his high school in Queens.
“I was smart enough to figure out that that was fairly significant,” he says. “I realized that Rochester offers urban lifestyle, and the 12-minute commute became very attractive. As a matter of fact, I lived in downtown Rochester for eight years and it was a three-minute walk.”
Doherty, who now lives on the southeast side of Rochester, considers his city service to be two separate careers.
As budget analyst, assistant budget director and budget director, Doherty considers his involvement in the Morin-Ryan sales tax agreement “the biggest thing I worked on in budget.”
The plan enables the city and Monroe County to share sales tax revenue, with each government getting some 31 percent. The rest was divvied up among Monroe County town governments.
“That was a very critical thing, in terms of the fiscal future of the city and (because of) the political factors involved in the cooperation that took place between the city and the county,” Doherty says.
Also in 1985, he was in the middle of Rochester’s transition from a city-manager form of government to its first elected strong mayor, Thomas Ryan.
Doherty, meanwhile, was looking for a change of his own.
“Budgeting is good experience, but I wanted to get into operations,” he says.
Environmental services provided the opportunity.
“It can be very creative, and I like that part,” Doherty says.
“The city’s infrastructure is in pretty good shape. We get to build new facilities, keep up the old facilities, make sure our streets are in good condition. We get involved in a lot of construction that is development-oriented.”
Doherty has helped coordinate development along Lake Ontario, the Genesee River, and the city’s trail system.
“I love to build trails,” he says. “That’s my favorite. It’s almost an inside joke at City Hall. We don’t have a budget for it, so I try to find ways of expanding our trail system using our own crews.”
Doherty has been working with representatives of the Genesee Land Trust for the last four years as the organization tries to develop what would be known as the Rochester Running Track along the CSX railroad bed on the east side of the river and through city neighborhoods.
“He’s been extremely positive, and very supportive of this,” Land Trust director Gay Mills says. “He’s very passionate about trails and about what he enjoys, and about bringing what he enjoys to each neighborhood.”
The city’s most publicized development in recent months has centered on Charlotte, home to a $16 million ferry terminal and the much-maligned Spirit of Ontario 1 fast ferry. Ferry operations were suspended in September because of debt problems after nearly 12 weeks of service between Rochester and Toronto.
Doherty is among several public officials in the spotlight since last fall when the city announced its plan to buy the ferry from former operator Canadian American Transportation Systems LLC.
“All the stuff that we wound up building (at the port) was actually planned to be built before the ferry was in the picture,” Doherty says. “Our job, first of all, was to change the planning to incorporate the ferry. It wasn’t easy, but it was something that we did.”
Doherty, with his budget experience, led a team of city officials that developed a business plan for the ferry, which was purchased for $32 million at a Feb. 28 foreclosure auction.
“The ferry is an important project, in terms of the service it provides but also in the possibility of an improved linkage between us and Toronto,” Doherty says.
“Toronto is a very unique urban center. It’s logical that we would want to improve that linkage, both in terms of providing access for our citizens to enjoy that but also the economic benefits that would occur from people coming to and through Rochester.”
The ferry, nicknamed the Cat, was scheduled for relaunch today but is delayed indefinitely because of maintenance issues related to its engines and propulsion computer software.
“There have been all kinds of problems along the way,” he says. “There have been all kinds of unexpected costs, and then some favorable costs. All through it the numbers have held up. It is still well within the financial parameters that were in that plan.”
Despite its string of problems, Doherty thinks the ferry will be a valuable commodity.
“That’s why it made sense for us to not just say, ‘Well, it’s a private venture. Let it die,'” he says. “In addition, we had substantial money invested in it.
“It’s not single-handedly going to save the local economy. But it will do two things. First, it does have that important symbolic value, that we can do something, do it well and sustain it. In the long term, it’s quite viable. The second thing is it’s going to help development in the Charlotte community.”
Developments at Charlotte and High Falls are projects Doherty is proud of. He also points to the construction of a new public safety building and the expansion of the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, and the ongoing construction of the new headquarters for the city’s water works-“the first public-sector green building in our region.”
To be designated a green building, a facility must meet standards set by the U.S. Green Buildings Council. Rochester Water Works is expected to receive points for site selection on a remediated brownfield, energy conservation, environmentally friendly building materials and indoor air quality, Doherty says.
“This city has enormous assets, with the scenic and recreation potential, and the Genesee River,” he says. “So you have to build on those assets. We have cultural assets that are great. Our physical assets are in good shape, compared to most cities of our age.”
In 1987, before such programs were mandated, Rochester was the first city in New York with a curbside multimaterial recycling program, Doherty says.
“We developed the environmental management unit from scratch,” he says.
The brownfield redevelopment program often works closely with the private sector, he says, such as with the cleanup of the Bausch & Lomb Inc. site that now serves as corporate headquarters.
The city program helped with decontamination of an industrial site along Vanguard Parkway now home to XLI Corp., Klein Steel Services Inc. and Jada Precision Plastics Co. Inc.; with cleanup of a site now home to Chevy Place; and with the seven-acre former Apco Equipment Corp. site on Woodstock Road.
His budget background helps Doherty navigate some of the financial roadblocks that can sidetrack environmental services projects.
“I try very hard not to let fiscal scarcity hold me back,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate, with the two mayors I’ve worked for, as well as the City Council, that despite the fiscal constraints we have they have never taken what I would consider the easy way out. We’ve always had responsible allocations for infrastructure improvements despite the constraints.”
When he is not working, Doherty likes outdoor activity.
“I do a fair amount of biking, and skiing in the winter,” he says. “I love to camp and backpack. I haven’t done that much of it lately, but that’s something I really enjoy doing.”
Locally, he is part of the campaign cabinet of the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and a member of the advisory board at the University of Rochester’s environmental health sciences department.
Doherty sits on the advisory committee for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of Environmental Justice. He also is part of the national environmental task force with the Public Technology Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit technology research and development organization representing local governments.
With three decades of public service behind him, Doherty has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Has he ever considered running for office?
“Only in my youth,” he says.
He would like to continue as commissioner of environmental services but, with Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr. not running for re-election, Doherty’s future lies in the hands of the next administration, which will take office Jan. 1.
“As a commissioner, I serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” he says. “That’s all I can say and that’s all I know. I survived the last transition (from Ryan to Johnson in 1993), but you’d have to ask the next mayor. Obviously, we all hope to continue.
“The positive aspects are still as positive as ever,” he adds. “I think I’m less patient with the negative aspects than I used to be. I used to joke to my wife when she would ask how work was today that only 2 million people yelled at me.”
That impatience has not diminished his enthusiasm for his work, however.
“I feel young and, whether it’s here or someplace else, I would envision continuing to work for five or 10 more years,” Doherty says.
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

06/17/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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