Ditch Man: Retired Lawrence utilities superintendent rose through the ranks over 37-year career


Scott Salsbery’s 37-year career with the City of Lawrence Utilities started because he needed a job, and his parents knew a guy.

“My parents lived next door to the guy who was superintendent of the utilities at that time, Bob Davis, and they were looking for help,” Salsbery said. “They had just started a water main replacement project over in Brookhaven, and I was between jobs at the time.”

So, in 1986, Salsbery started as what he called a “ditch man” — the guy in the hole, making repairs and installing new equipment. Fast-forward to the close of 2023, and he has just retired as the utilities superintendent.

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City of Lawrence Utilities Superintendent Scott Salsbery rose through the ranks, starting as a “ditch man” in 1986. (Photo courtesy of the City of Lawrence)

A lot happened in between, though. In an interview at Porter Books in downtown Lawrence, Salsbery recalled that he was part of the work crews through 1993, when he transferred to the newly created city engineer’s office as an assistant. Through that job, he learned about easements, rights of way, surveying, design work and more.

After then-mayor Tom Schneider’s 1999 deal to sell Lawrence’s water utility to the Indianapolis Water Co. fell through, Salsbery said Lawrence Utilities LLC was formed to manage the utility for the city.

“That is when, in the latter part of 2001, I came on board at the LLC as an assistant director of operations,” he said. “Mainly dealing with stuff out in the field — running the crews and whatnot.”

The next mayor, though, made some changes. Salsbery recalled that Mayor Deborah Cantwell campaigned on “taking the utilities back,” because along with the LLC came controversial large rate increases for residents.

“It was almost like a 100-percent rate increase,” he said. “I mean, huge, because they hadn’t adjusted water rates since, like, 1988.”

A lawsuit followed to break the LLC contract, and eventually the utility went back to city management after about seven years under the LLC. But before the lawsuit was resolved, the director of operations — Salbery’s boss at the time — quit his job, leaving Salsbery in charge of that department.

Various other mayors came and went, but Salsbery remained. When Steve Collier started his first term as mayor, he appointed Salsbery to the top job with the city’s utilities, where Salsbery remained for his final eight years. That’s when he did some of the work he’s most proud of — rebuilding the city’s water infrastructure, which wasn’t an easy task since the utility was pretty much broke.

“When we took over, the water utility was virtually bankrupt,” he said. “By December of 2017, if we just chose to do nothing, the water utility would have defaulted on its bond. So, it was a very dire situation. The sewer was in a little better shape, but not much. And again, a lot of this is just due to our councilors in the past — nobody wanted to raise rates. It was politically unpopular.”

But, he said, the utility needed money to make major emergency repairs. For example, he said, in 2016, before he was appointed superintendent, he received a call that one of the water plants’ aerator units — used to treat raw water pumped up from the aquifer — had collapsed and fallen into the well.

The city’s finances in general weren’t that great, Salsbery said, and he credited then-Controller Jason Fenwick for helping to turn all that around through planning, management and forward-thinking. Salsbery said the city’s administrators worked well as a team. They also came up with a plan for gradual rate increases to help pay for those needed repairs and improvements.

It wasn’t easy, he said, and it wasn’t unanimous. But they did get a rate increase passed and were able to improve the city’s bond rating to qualify for project funding. They also secured an $8.5 million state loan, which started the ball rolling. That ball hasn’t stopped, and Salsbery said he hopes it keeps going.

“All of our key water assets right now are basically as good as new,” Salsbery said. “The important thing now is just to stay on top of that and don’t let them deteriorate — like what happened before — by doing smaller but more frequent rate increases to make sure that you’re keeping up with your routine operation and maintenance.”

Salsbery said there are still challenges ahead for the city’s utilities.

“But I like to think that with the tremendous teamwork — everybody kind of doing their part — we definitely leave city utilities in way, way better shape than we found it. That’s a source of great satisfaction for me, personally.”

A few days into retirement, Salsbery said he had been doing a lot of reading, catching up on home projects and relaxing. His big retirement plans will involve travel — domestic and international. He has family in France, he said, and he and his wife enjoy road trips. Like the Robert Frost poem, he said they prefer the “road less traveled.”

“We don’t take main roads,” he said. “We try to stay on back roads because we’re firm believers in the fact you find more cool stuff out on the back roads.”

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City of Lawrence Utilities Superintendent Scott Salsbery and former Mayor Steve Collier cut the ribbon during a grand opening celebration of the refurbished Fort Harrison Water Treatment Plant (File photo)

A French connection

Retired City of Lawrence Utilities Superintendent Scott Salsbery, who served a term in the U.S. Air Force, comes from a military family and grew up moving around from base to base.

“I was actually born on Chanute Air Force Base over in Illinois, just across the state line in Rantoul, Illinois, kind of north of Champaign,” he said. His dad — originally from Kokomo — had his last duty assignment at the recruiting center in downtown Indianapolis. “He still owns the original family farm out there (in) Kokomo.”

Salsbery said his mother is French and his parents met when his father was stationed in Paris.

“My mom was living with her older sister in basically a suburb of Paris,” he said. “I forget exactly how they met, but I think it was through some people that my dad worked with who lived next door to where my mom’s sister was — kind of a matchmaker type thing.”

The family lived in various places, ending up in Lawrence in 1977, and Salsbery’s been there ever since.