It takes broad shoulders to maintain Grimes County’s government buildings, and no one fills the bill better than Maintenance/ Project Manager Al Peeler. During his tenure, the bearded, burly United States Marine Corps combat veter an has redefined his department and become central to the construction and preservation of Grimes County’s most important buildings.
Though he holds an Industrial Engineering degree and directed $171 million in construction projects for companies like NRG, the modest Peeler opted to hire on with Grimes County in 2015 as a “janitor.” His irrepressible inclination to find a better way to do things would soon change that title.
Peeler said, “Grimes County didn’t really have a maintenance department, they called it maintenance, but we were custodial – we changed lights. When I first started, the Annex here in Anderson had 36 leaks. That’s because they didn’t do preventive maintenance. It’s going to run fine until it don’t.”
County Judge Joe Fauth, court liaison to the Maintenance Department, said, “Al probably spent the first part of his career at Grimes County in what I’d call corrective maintenance, fixing things that were broken or not right, but one thing which is much needed for any business organization is a preventive maintenance program. One of the things Al brought to the party was that preventive maintenance program.”
A bigger plate
Peeler oversees nearly a dozen county-owned facilities - the Anderson annex, historic courthouse, JP office in Iola, Justice Center, Law Enforcement Center (LEC), Navasota annex, the offices of the district attorney, county clerk, Road & Bridge, and the CHI St. Joseph Grimes Hospital in Navasota. Then add oversight of the probationers’ community service program determining work projects, scheduling probationers and record keeping.
Despite relocating multiple offices to the new Grimes County Justice and Business Center or the remodeled Anderson annex, don’t expect Peeler’s responsibilities to decrease. While CHI rents the building from Grimes County, the County takes care of the exterior only, but that will change with the 2021- 2022 budget.
Fauth said, “Preventive and corrective maintenance hasn’t really been taken care of, not to anybody’s fault, but we didn’t have anybody assigned to oversee that.”
Peeler said that after a tour and needs assessment, “I saw some things in my professional maintenance opinion that we can do better.”
Peeler accomplishes what he does with just four employees but despite his limited staff, he declared, “We can stand against any maintenance department in the county.”
Fauth considers Peeler’s selection as the Justice Center project manager and $1,425 monthly stipend an excellent trade-off for taxpayers. Faced with a quote of $50,000-$200,000 from a construction management company, Peeler felt it was time to step up and use his credentials and experience.
He said, “We get some new furniture because we saved some money 18 months ago. I thought I could help the county. It was my turn to give.”
Where Al’s heart is
Addressing Justice Center costs, Peeler said, “We’re on budget. I know there’s been a lot of things said but I know the numbers. I look at them daily, sometimes five times daily.”
And yes, he agreed the wheels of government turn slower than in the private sector.
Peeler said, “When I came to Grimes County, I felt we were reactive, and my maintenance style is proactive and sometimes them two philosophies don’t jive. I don’t think it needs to move as slow as it does, but I don’t think it needs to be as fast as the private sector because we are spending taxpayer money.”
Peeler firmly believes that the Justice Center will rival that of Grimes County’s 127-year-old historic courthouse.
To taxpayers, Peeler says, “It’s well built. I know that for a fact. They spent their money well on the Justice Center. When they walk into that building, they can be as proud of it as they are of the courthouse.”
Peeler takes cost and safety personally, saying, “It’s an everyday concern for me because it’s everybody’s money, including mine and my daughter’s. I’m a big family person. I have two grandchildren and I’ve got to look out for their future.”
Peeler continued, “We’re building a justice center that I’m the project manager over, and at the end of the day if it isn’t still standing in 127 years, this guy (himself) on the front of the building is the problem.”
Peeler’s comment refers to the commissioners’ recognition of his work by including his name on the cornerstone of the Justice Center.
When asked what that meant to him, Peeler wiped away tears and said, “I love it! I love it for Lilly and Iris, knowing that when the commissioners decided to put my name on it that my granddaughters can say, ‘That’s my Poppa!’ Now you know where my heart is.”
Peeler has weathered multiple challenges – mold in the LEC, a pandemic, the Texas freeze, rain delays and the courthouse renovation. The renovation, the first since 2000, was prompted by Hurricane Harvey and “three and a half inches of water running out the front and back door.”
Peeler’s engineering background was a plus when they approached the Texas Historical Commission (THC) and Texas Association of counties (TAC) about what needed to be done.
Of the $1.8 million in repair costs, $250,000 was covered by grants, $300,000-$400,000 by taxpayers and the bulk by TAC insurance. The top to bottom, inside-out renovation earned Grimes County the 2020 “Texas Courthouse Stewardship Award” from THC.
For those who ask why bother, Peeler replied, “True answer is you can’t ever tear this down. It’s part of THC and they have an easement. We’re on three dedicated Texas Historical National Park and Wildlife registries and the Texas National Registry of Historical Markers. When we took the money in 2000 to do the first remodel that said this courthouse stays forever.”
What spare time?
After his successful oversight of the courthouse’s 125th anniversary celebration in 2019, Peeler was approached to consider chairing the Grimes County Historical Commission. Membership has increased tenfold during his tenure and upcoming projects focus on Historic Anderson Park.
On-call 24/7, Peeler has little leisure time to indulge his interest in racing remote controlled cars, but in December he’s the guy in the Santa suit at the Bedias Civic Club.
Grimes County’s “janitor,” explained that the best laid plans don’t always work out but that’s what makes the job fun.
Peeler said, “It makes it worth coming to work to see what we can fix next!”