EAST COUNTY — His work is invisible.
For 30 years, Manatee County Utilities Director Dan Gray has been comfortable in hiding.
Every morning, from behind the tint of his motorcycle helmet, Gray rides 35 minutes on a Harley-Davidson from his Myakka home to the Manatee County Utilities administration building, a plain workplace in west Bradenton.
It’s July 3, and Gray stands at the highest point of Manatee County, atop the Lena Road Landfill, 136 feet above sea level, ready — at the prodding of his colleagues — to talk about his work.
Gray’s retirement clock — the one he got as a gag gift that started with 5,000 days — has stopped ticking.
A man more bound to his leather appointment book than personal pride, Gray will relinquish his responsibility to provide water to the community he loves, when he retires Friday.
Here, on this gravel mountain, Gray can see his wide-ranging customers.
He can see the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine’s shiny windows.
He can see the Heritage Harbour and Rosedale communities.
He can see the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce and landmarks of Sarasota County, Longboat Key, Palmetto and Bradenton.
Under Gray’s watch, Manatee County has become the leading water supplier in the region; it treats, distributes and meters water to almost 94,000 retail customers, as well as to nearby communities.
“When you stand up here, you see what you do and who you do it for,” Gray said.
Under Gray’s leadership for the past 26 years, the Manatee County Utilities Department has accomplished much.
For Gray, “the utility,” as he calls the services his department provides, including drinking water, wastewater, reclaimed water, solid waste (garbage) and recycling, constantly evolves and works best when it links together.
That’s the thinking behind Manatee Utilities’ latest project, a co-generator being built at the Lena Road Landfill (see sidebar).
At the most basic level, the co-generator will enable the county to capture and use gas emitted from the landfill to power other utilities.
Gray, who graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in chemistry, loathes talking about himself.
It’s hard for him to communicate outside his world; Gray is the only Manatee County department head without an iPad.
However, his enthusiasm emerges when he talks about the science of the utility.
“We don’t operate dumps,” Gray said. “We run professionally run facilities with an environmental focus. The utility is very dynamic. It has to breathe and grow. We want the county to sustain its own growth potential.”
Gray is proud of another project built on interdependency, the Manatee Agricultural Reuse System (MARS).
Activated in 2006 with the construction of a $50 million, 12-mile underground pipeline that connects the county’s wastewater treatment plants, MARS increases the drinking-water supply by providing alternative water sources for irrigation.
Gray, who started with the county in the pollution-control department as a lab tech, spearheaded the utilities department’s 13-year-old career-ladder program, an in-house training system that makes it easier for employees to rise through the ranks.
The program also serves as a platform to provide a face to a department that does thankless work.
“I hate the connotation ‘unskilled laborer,’” Gray said. “These are people who are not visible. We are not like law enforcement or firemen. Those are critical services, but they have a face. We are the silent sentinels.”
It’s a job that requires Gray to arrive at work at 5 a.m. And, it’s job within a department that never stops. Someone operates the water treatment plants every hour of the day.
“Not only do we have a direct impact on our neighbors, but also our family,” Gray said. “I can’t go home and tell my wife, ‘We can’t drink the water because I didn’t do my job today.’ Wouldn’t you hold that responsibility dear?”
Gray indeed holds his job dear. He doesn’t want to turn the water off, so to speak, but he knows the time is near.
“It will be weird to turn off the career switch,” Gray said.
He will try, first by taking a trip to South Dakota with friends and brothers.
“I don’t have a legacy,” Gray said. “I don’t need a plaque. If people remember me, I hope it’s for providing a face to the people — for the people who do the work and to who we do work for.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].