Bye, George

County Waste Water Management Chief Calls It Quits After Two Decades.

GEORGE BRINKSO spent more than 20 years handling all of Pima County's sewage, but it was early in his career here that he showed he could handle showboat politicians and their henchmen bureaucrats.

A minor tempest stirred in the early 1980s over some operation of Waste Water Management, and Conrad Joyner, a Republican then in his final term on the Board of Supervisors, was going to make an example of Brinsko.

On this day, though, there was little surprise in the attack. On a day guided by a thin and strictly routine agenda, television cameras were propped up and crowded the edge of the dais near Joyner's coveted seat -- the one closest to the audience and the cameras.

Joyner, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, wheeled about in his chair, awaiting an opportunity to strike. Brinsko sat 15 feet away and several feet lower at a bureaucrats' table, knowing full well that the cameras meant showdown. But Joyner already was betrayed. A prodigious snacker, he couldn't keep away from the donuts that someone had brought out from the board's back room.

As he started in on Brinsko, wagging a finger while reminding him how the Board of Supervisors brought him to the desert from Pittsburgh and so on, Joyner spun for affirmation only to reveal the powdered sugar, jelly and crumbs that now marked his face, lapels, tie and shirt.

"Yes, Dr. Joyner," Brinsko said in agreement to nothing in particular. Then, without impudence, Brinsko cut short the spectacle by simply saying, "There will be no discussion today."

A former steelworker and son of an immigrant Czech steelworker, Brinsko had seen enough media circuses in his public works jobs in Pittsburgh to handle the likes of Joyner and other supervisors.

Brinsko remembers the incident, but even as he entered retirement last week, he sidesteps the opportunity to trash Joyner.

"He was a real showman," Brinsko says of Joyner, who was forced to give up his District 4 seat after his ill-fated run for Congress in 1982.

George Brinsko is a thick man. Thick, nearly trademark, eyebrows that have whitened with his years in Tucson. Thick neck. Thick shoulders. Thick hands. Animated personality.

Lessons, also, from the mill remain.

He joined his father in the steel mill as a kid. His dad lured him back there for temporary work, but also made sure Brinsko did more.

Brinsko built up good savings from his mill jobs, around $2,000 that he wanted to use to buy a car. The old man had a different idea: tuition. And so it was that George Brinsko entered the University of Pittsburgh.

He got his degree and also joined the Marine Corps, with whom he fought in Korea.

When Brinsko arrived in Tucson, Pima County was just starting its operation of the merged sewer systems, the decade-long consolidation of city and county systems. It was an agreement that was a constant source of aggravation for Brinsko and the county because the city gained control of 90 percent of the effluent.

He took over the post from Byron Howard, who became an executive for US Home in Tucson before embarking on a career of small business advocacy. Howard now is running as a Democrat for the Board of Supervisors in central and foothills District 1.

Under Brinsko, Waste Water Management grew from a $12.8 million a year operation to one with a $57 million annual budget. A system that treated 38 million gallons daily now struggles to handle 64 million gallons a day.

He did it under the constant strain of housing growth that at one time in recent years left him over capacity by up to 3 million gallons daily. Few seized on what that could have spelled: building moratorium.

Still, under Brinsko, Waste Water Management enjoyed huge surpluses and was the richest of county departments. Bond rating agencies loved his performance. That trend continues today in the paradox of county finances: huge debt (at least $46 million from the county's mismanaged health system) and high taxes in a time of unprecedented economic growth and a sustained building boom.

"He is the Alan Greenspan of Pima County," is the praise given Brinsko by longtime bond counsel Fred Rosenfeld.

Brinsko has not always liked the reward for his department's ability to raise and save cash. He fumed when county Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors raided his reserves this fiscal year to cover operating shortages. He's had to contend with individual supervisors hitting him up to pay for fancy computers and office equipment.

A devoted family man, Brinsko has managed his expanding bureaucracy with his own style of tough love. He could cajole -- pulling someone off to the side first with a hand on the arm and then with a direct, quiet: "Now, listen to me," or "let me ask you something."

He could be tougher, when tough was called for, and he sometimes had little patience for intramural bureaucratic tiffs that he settled with a sometimes thinly veiled threat of force.

But he also nurtured talent, including Kathleen Chavez, a longtime Waste Water enigneer and administrator who is among an unofficial list of replacements; and David Esposito, who was plucked out of Waste Water 11 years ago to become the county's first director of Environmental Quality before leaving this year for a state environmental job.

Environmentalists were not always pleased with Brinsko or his reputation. He could drag out public records requests, particularly if someone was rude, threatening or demanding.

Others thought he trivialized pollution and treatment issues with the "fish in the Santa Cruz River" fight in the mid- and late 1980s. Brinsko and county officials eventually persuaded federal officials to stop classifying the dry Santa Cruz as a fishery.

"He's been very good making sure the county does not get into any trouble," says Art Chapa, the Tucson lawyer who has worked with Brinsko for years as a county lobbyist. "But it's the way he's done it. The easiest thing for him to have done over the years was to just raise fees to pay for all the regulatory requirements, but he's actually saved the county millions of dollars."

But Brinsko was no stooge for developers. In fact he infuriated many with his extractions for land and for pipe and other infrastructure payments.

"People have been under the impression that we pay for the extensions and lines. That's not the way it is. He demands the developers pay their way," Chapa said. "He may be willing to give them a little advice on how to make their project better or to save some money, but he makes them pay their fair share."

At an otherwise routine hearing in 1987, Brinsko's calm and matter-of-fact demands on one project forced a grown man -- the successful land-use lawyer Bob Stubbs -- to jump up and down and stomp his feet in protest.

Stubbs did not get his way that day. But not long after, Brinsko was at La Paloma for some meeting when Stubbs and a breakfast partner caught his eye. It was Supervisor Iris Dewhirst, a Republican who represented District 1 for one term. Stubbs got his way.

Joyner's show nearly 18 years ago was simply a warm up for what Brinsko would face later. Brinsko was in Supervisor Ed Moore's sights in 1987, and the then-Democrat accused Brinsko of all sorts of mismanagement. To prove it, Moore ordered Brinsko one day to cough up tens of thousands of pages of records for a meeting the next day. Brinsko declined. Moore huffed and puffed and called him a crook before settling down in his defeat.

It got worse six years later, when Moore, having changed to Republican, was in charge of the Board's majority that included Paul Marsh and Mike Boyd. Their illegal reorganization and mass firings and demotions, which cost county taxpayers at least $5 million in settlements and fees, included elimination of Brinsko.

Brinsko didn't flinch. Not even when the majority's short-lived hachet man, Manoj Vyas called Brinsko in and ordered him to sign his retirement papers. His desire to hold on was locked when he discovered that Vyas was already advertising for his replacement. It was Brinsko who helped stabilize the listing county when Huckelberry was brought back

"It's very hard to find an engineer with the skills to do more than engineering," Chapa said. "People skills, political skills, not just with the Board, but with the EPA and Congress. He has that mix. He was one of the few people left who are mission-oriented, who are driven by doing a good job. They're a lost breed. He's been a very, very good civil servant."

For his part, Brinsko isn't saying much. He has downplayed his successes and laughed at his foibles. He laments, mostly, the lack of adequate pay for his and other troops in county government. They, he said, need to be rewarded with better pay and greater appreciation.

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