BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – He’s gone from a slide rule to a calculator to GPS…and now he’s going to retirement.
Lee County Engineer Ernie Steffensmeier is stepping down from his post as the county’s top engineer after 42 years.
Steffensmeier says he will miss the people the most and wanted to thank the current and past Lee County residents for taking the time to talk with him over the past four decades, and for allowing him to help them with issues and questions they may have had.
“I’d like to thank the people of Lee County because when they do call in with concerns they’ve been good at listening to what we had to say and what the crew was able to do to help them. Most people that stop in to see me are decent people and I’ve always appreciated that,” Steffensmeier said.
He said his retirement plans include some outdoor activities and awaiting his wife’s retirement.
“She’s about seven years younger than me, so I’ll be waiting on her retirement before we make any plans. But I love to be outdoors so I’ll do some pond fishing and hunting and those kinds of things that I enjoy,” he said.
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Currently the staff will be at three when the 65-year-old Steffensmeier leaves on Dec. 28th, but he said he thinks the county will replace those and get back to a staff of five. He said when he came on board in the late 70s they had a staff of seven.
“We needed extra people back then because it took two people to hold a steel tape when we we’re surveying and planning work,” he said. “Now you can do that work using GPS technology and it doesn’t take as many people.”
He said a couple years after he arrived, the staff was reduced to six and now they operate with a staff of five.
He’s also seen the budget for county engineering just about double since 1976 from $3 million to roughly $6 million. Steffensmeier said legislative changes have also resulted in more federal money being available for some of the work that the county and state used to pay for, especially for road safety and bridge work.
“When the legislature started collecting a gas tax, there was a portion that went to the state and some that went to the counties and a portion went to the cities, and there was a portion that went to roads between cities that were labeled Farm to Market roads that ran to rural areas and to elevators and barge terminals.”
In addition to minor staffing changes and budgetary changes, Steffensmeier said technology is something that has been consistently changing since he came back to Lee County.
After graduating from Fort Madison High School, Steffensmeier went where most students pursuing an engineering degree in Iowa went….Iowa State University. After graduating in the spring of 1976, Steffensmeier went to work in Iowa County near the Amana Colonies and then, when a position opened up back in Lee County about five months later, he applied, was hired, and came back home. When he first started, he was the assistant engineer under Tom Nelson, before Dennis Osipowicz took over. Osipowicz stepped down in 2008.
He said his first year at ISU, instruction was still done with a slide rule, or a ruler with a sliding strip, marked with logarithmic scales and used for making rapid calculations, especially multiplication and division.
“My first year in college, they still had the slide rules and by the time I was a sophomore, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments came out with the first-hand held calculators.
“By the time I got out of college, you’d better have had a calculator in your hands or you were gonna fall behind,” he said. “When I first got into the career field we used to measure and do our surveying with a transit and a steel tape. Now everything is done with GPS and you don’t have to cut down trees, you just go right around them,” he said.
He said newer technology has made surveying and county planning a lot easier.
“You have computers now that you can do design with and make changes very quickly. In the old days you had to stop and figure out the end area and the amount of dirt you had to move. Now it’s all electronic, you just move the line and it recalculates everything.”
He said computers also help with determining flow of water in culverts, where you punch in data on watershed and cultivated ground and the programs determine water flow for the best use and style of culverts to use in rural areas. Inspection work is done on Ipads that are carried around with staff. Information is put into the Ipad in the field and then downloaded to computers back at the office.
Steffensmeier said the maturation of GPS technology has also been helpful, but costly.
“We bought a total station GPS in Lee County about four or five years ago at a cost of $70,000 and they told me at the time, after seven years they wouldn’t be able to repair glitches in the system and a whole new system would have to be purchased,” he said.
Steffensmeier said the county is in pretty good condition and the paved roads are in fairly good shape. He said the gravel roads are at the mercy of the weather and week or so of heavy rain or melting snow can cause some problems with the surfaces.
“I think we’re in fairly decent shape. We have a few roads that might not be, but overall I believe we’re in pretty good shape.”
There will be a reception to honor Steffensmeier’s service to the county on Friday, Dec. 28, from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the North Lee County office building.