Billy Skinner is happy to see the successful completion of many projects, including the roundabout, prior to his retirement. (Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum)
COVINGTON — Billy Skinner knows where just about every gas, water and sewer line is in the city of Covington. But you’ll never guess how he learned.
When Skinner came to work for the city as a drafting assistant in 1972, former City Engineer Ray Geiger had an unusual mapping system: Gluing dried spaghetti to the walls of the old engineering department at Williams and Pace streets. Geiger had separate maps for house numbers, gas and water lines.
“He would take the spaghetti and dye the spaghetti different colors and then paste them on the walls,” Skinner said. “But it worked great, you know. All the valves and stuff for the gas was on the walls. Whenever an engineer would come up they would go in there and look at the walls and they could tell what sizes they were and everything. That worked good until the spaghetti kept falling off, and then he actually painted colors on the wall at that time.”
Skinner himself made plenty of maps , without the assistance of a computer.
“We’d have to draw the whole city up by hand. You’d draw it on tracing paper or either Mylar and ink it. About the time you’d get through inking it or get just about to the end, something would happen to your ink pen. You’d have this big blob and you’d have to try to erase it, which you couldn’t do, and start all over again,” he said.
The mapping system isn’t the only thing that’s changed during Skinner’s 41 years of service to the city. One of the things he said he’s most enjoyed is learning new techniques for getting the job done. The job will be done once and for all pretty soon, as Skinner, now project transportation manager, is preparing to retire this month.
“I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed all these years. Everybody seemed to say, ‘If you’ve got something you need done, just give it to Billy and he’ll get it done.’ I’ve worked with every one of the departments. I didn’t ever exclude anybody,” he said.
It’s the sense of camaraderie among employees that impressed Skinner from the start.
“I always said as we grew older that family unit would break away, but it hasn’t … when somebody’s in need, others come to help,” he said.
Skinner’s father tried to dissuade him from working for the city, telling him he could earn more working somewhere else.
“I went in making $125 a week — that was gross,” he said. “But I was able to work and just was able to climb the ladder over all these years, you know, and (I’ve) been proud of every one of them.”
Former City Manager Steve Horton said Skinner has been with the city for so long that “you cannot mention one without the other’s name coming up.”
Serving as both the head of engineering and transportation manager during his career, “Billy has tirelessly given of himself to help others and to help make Covington a better and safer place to live and work,” Horton said.
“Billy’s impact locally has been so great that without him, I think it is safe to say that Covington would not be the town that it is today,” he continued. “With all his years of service to the city, Billy is a walking, talking, living, breathing library of City of Covington historical, operational, and support facts. There is no department within the city that Billy, through his vast knowledge, expertise, and giving nature has not assisted many times during his tenure at the city. Over the years, it has been a great pleasure to have worked so closely with Billy. I personally have gained and learned so much from him. I am honored that Billy is my friend and he will be sorely missed at the city.”
Skinner recalled gaining his knowledge and experience the hard way. One of his first projects assigned by Geiger was to locate all utilities from Carroll and Clark streets to the water plant on Williams Street. Geiger showed Skinner how to use a pipehorn, a tool for locating underground utilities, and then left him on his own.
“Back then we didn’t have color coding like we do now, and I had gotten some silver paint from the hardware store and put either a G (for gas) or W (for water) or whatever, what size it was. I put it on the pavement out there, so I had the streets painted up pretty good, because whenever I made a mistake, an X went on it.”
Skinner calls it one of his best experiences, because it was hands-on learning.
“I’d always have to go back and ask questions and that’s another way of learning. That’s the way I was taught, was to ask questions, and there’s a lot of good people at the city right here that can give you answers. That’s where a lot of my experience came from, just talking to the supervisors and the laborers and watching the way they did things in the field,” he said.
Skinner ran the engineering department from 1974 until 2006, when Horton asked him to become transportation project manager.
Of the many projects he’s worked on, a few stand out: “We’ve tried to go through our whole sidewalk network and make it one of the safest sidewalk networks around, and I think we have just about completed that,” he said, adding there’s a contract out right now to finish up a few more sidewalks.
In 1990, the city changed the sidewalks around the Square to their current tile scheme. They had previously been a mixture of tile, concrete and brick.
He’s also worked on various projects related to the expansion of Covington Municipal Airport.
Skinner said he’s particularly proud of the reclamation of Old Atlanta Highway.
“When those trucks would go by you would actually see the paving rolling underneath the weight of the trucks,” he said.
Blair Barnhardt of Blount Construction told Skinner there was a new way of paving called reclaiming that would work on the road. It was a risk at the time, and Skinner warned him both their names could be tarnished if it didn’t work. “That’s been 12 years now and we haven’t been over to fix a pothole or a crack or resurface it. That’s one of the ones I and Blair are both real proud of.”
Skinner’s also proud of his work on the initial grading for City Pond Park and construction of the dams and arch bridge at Academy Springs Park, because he knows those facilities are enjoyed by many people each year.
Skinner and the street department poured the dams at Academy Springs without the benefit of pumper trucks.
“We set the forms up down there and poured the footings, and poured the walls by taking the wheel barrows from the truck, running it down skids to the dam and then shoveling it over into the forms, then taking the shovel handle and beating it down,” he said. “But the dams are still there.”
The roundabout on Turner Lake Road is another point of pride for Skinner. Though it took years to get built, and the project had its share of naysayers, “Since it’s been in and working, we’ve had a lot of people come in just to come look at it,” he said, adding that it’s a model project for DOT and other cities. Skinner gives Planning Director Randy Vinson the credit, calling him a visionary who patiently worked to get people on board with the idea.
Skinner pushed for an accompanying pedestrian tunnel because he worried about people crossing the busy roundabout to get to Turner Lake Complex.
He’s also thrilled that the last phase of the multi-use trail will be let this month. He and the county’s Special Projects coordinator, Cheryl Delk, have been working on that project for 10 years.
Skinner said he’s thankful for the good relationship maintained between the county and city road departments the Georgia Department of Transportation. “All the city managers and the public works directors, everybody here at the city, I’m just thankful to them. They’ve made the job easy for me,” he said. “I’m glad that they trusted me enough and the City Council backed me enough to do these projects.”
During his time with the city, Skinner also served as president of the Georgia State Plumbers Inspectors Association in 1986-87 and in 1996 as president of the Newton County Utility Coordinating Committee.
Skinner said he doesn’t plan to sit idle in retirement, noting that he’s got seven grandkids and four great-grandchildren, with twin great-grandchildren on the way.
“They’re going to keep me busy, along with my wife’s honey-do list,” he said.
Skinner gave a special thanks to his wife Shirley. “A lot of times I’d go home and I’d get a call and have to turn around and either leave the supper table or leave during the middle of the night or whatever for an emergency. She stood behind me all these years. Thank God for her,” he said.