Posted Online: July 31, 2010, 8:25 pm

Retiring city worker not taking it easy: plans to open pet-sitting business

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By Seth Kabala, correspondent@qconline.com

Photo: Seth Kabala
Linda Barnett
Except for a calendar, stapler, adding machine and stack of paper, her desk was sparsely populated: a Hardees' cup peeking out from behind the corner of the computer monitor the only blemish to the minimalist décor.

More important was the worker at the desk.

For 28 years that was Linda Barnett, 56. Her job title was lengthy: "Public Works Department Secretary, Insurance Secretary, Billing Clerk." That meant she prepared and collected bills for city services, stopped service due to nonpayment and filed liens.

Ms. Barnett, also thought it important that people found information they needed or simply saw a friendly face behind the counter.

When residents were cash-poor due to job loss or illness, Ms. Barnett found her human side. "Collections is a very tough business because you want to leave the people with their pride," she said, noting that having empathy for people in tough situations and finding ways to work through their delinquencies were necessary skills.

Flexibility was important because things changed from day to day, such as people calling, freaked out because their basement was flooding. "When people call in, we try to find out whose area it is, and then we try to help them," she said. "The fun part of the job is trying to give people the information they need to get what they want."

Ms. Barnett's office duties didn't change much through the years but technology affected how she did them. "The computer system when I started was a big old Burroughs," she said. The old machine's dimensions were 24 inches by 24 inches by 4 feet. It used computer programs on ticker tape with punched-out dots. "You had to put that down in the computer, and that little stripe had to be read," she said. "If that would get messed up or off-kilter or out of place, it really caused a problem."

Soon to have lots of free time, Ms. Barnett said she was thinking about starting a pet-sitting business. For some people, "it's really traumatic for them to take their animals to the vet or house them at a kennel," she said.

She would interview clients to learn how they pet, play and interact with their animals to ensure personalized training and care. She would also take photos throughout the day and use Facebook to show clients how their pets are doing.

Ms. Barnett's two cats have given her firsthand knowledge of the bond that forms between humans and animals. "Our pets become emotionally attached (to) us," she said. "No one wants to come home to a depressed puppy."

During the last 28 years, Ms. Barnett experienced the rise and fall of the 1980s Super City concept; recalled that when she started with Silvis, Tri-City grocery had an ice-house for railcars, because railcars at the time didn't have refrigeration units; and saw neighborhoods go from new to "weathered." "You can age neighborhoods just by looking at the trees," she said.

Ms. Barnett formed close bonds with residents. "I'm just going to miss being able to see people from all over the city every three months when they come in. Most of them are just so sweet as they get older and the family grows."

Asked what her parting thought to her co-workers would be, she focused on the moral and service aspects of the job rather than the mechanics. "I hope they can enjoy it as much as I have, and they help the people."