Small communities face big public works headaches
Small and rural communities across the country are facing serious infrastructure challenges. That is the conclusion reached over the last three years by participants in two independent projects set up to address public works in those communities.
The first project was the outgrowth of a discussion between leaders of the American Public Works Association (APWA) and officials of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that focused on the idea of holding a series of “think tanks” throughout the United States on the transportation challenges facing small and rural communities. The second project involved a series of meetings hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which formed a small systems working group under the auspices of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) to deal with the challenges to small and rural drinking water systems. The APWA/FHWA project focused on communities of less than 50,000, and the NDWAC subcommittee concentrated on small and rural water systems serving populations of less than 10,000.
Final reports on both projects are due soon. Each project resulted in individual recommendations, but there also was considerable agreement about the “systemic” challenges that face public works officials in small and rural areas throughout the country. Communication – and the lack thereof – tended to be the overriding concern common to many of the discussions.
Communication with the public, with elected and appointed officials and regulators, and with other public works officials and employees was seen as a major need. In both forums, there was widespread frustration with the idea that the importance of maintenance and renewal of public works infrastructure is lost on elected and appointed officials as well as on the public at large. The central challenge to public works departments in small and rural communities is to make their voices heard. That challenge was grouped into categories: * Leadership and team-building; * Resource sharing; * Vision and strategy; and * Program coordination.
The need for skilled, certified and well-trained workers was discussed in most of the meetings. Small communities have a hard time finding and retaining qualified personnel; however, in today’s economy, with low unemployment, increased demand for qualified employees and higher pay demands, that need has reached crisis proportions.
In the fields of water and wastewater, for instance, demand for certified operators is well ahead of supply. Additionally, recent EPA and state regulations impose greater demands on small systems to hire certified operators. But demands on larger systems and within the industry have created a job market in which qualified operators are paid much more than small systems can afford.
Most groups concluded that it is time to overhaul the way public works employees are recruited, trained and hired. They recommended a national campaign to inform the public about the importance of public works, which would include elements directed toward potential employees.
Many forum participants indicated that public officials frequently do not know what a public works department does, nor do many of them understand or appreciate how critical the public works infrastructure is to public health and safety, economic development and business productivity. One participant suggested that local officials be taken on frequent tours of public works facilities and projects, and that decision-makers be given regular and frequent updates on projects under development or construction.
Local leaders also should be made aware of the logistical and economic realities that face public works departments in their communities. The NDWAC working group specifically discussed the importance of educating public officials and decision-makers about the economics and technical complexity of water and wastewater treatment systems. In fact, several states currently require public officials to receive training about water and wastewater before they are allowed to serve on a board, council or commission. Indeed, there is some impetus for EPA to tie such a requirement to federal funding for water and wastewater projects.
Additionally, “champions” of public works advocacy must be found or developed throughout local, state and federal agencies, and elected bodies. Critical players should include various associations and interest groups, such as the National League of Cities, the National Governors Association and the National Association of Counties. Local and regional organizations such as municipal leagues, civic groups, planning districts, rural development councils and contractors’ associations also should be enlisted.
The idea that rural communities need to work together under a new philosophy of mutual aid was one significant outcome of the discussions. Already in place in some areas, the idea needs to be a common strategy for isolated and financially strapped communities. The term “resource sharing” was chosen because it encompasses the sharing of information, personnel, knowledge and equipment. It recognizes a growing demand to regionalize various facilities and infrastructure components.
Economies of scale dictate that regionalization be considered for projects involving a number of services, including water, solid waste and transportation. Additionally, consideration should be given to a regional approach to recruitment, training and public outreach campaigns.
Most forum participants agreed that goal setting and strategic planning is sorely needed in rural and small communities. Clear, understandable performance standards should be developed, and all public works employees should be made aware ofhow they are a part of the vision and how they can contribute to it.
Public works departments must develop strategies to increase awareness of the importance of public works and the need for infrastructure improvements. That can be accomplished by: * Direct mailings to the public explaining confusing issues or emphasizing important projects; * Neighborhood meetings to explain projects; * Advertisements in local newspapers, on local radio or television; * Use of public access channels; * Door hangers explaining local projects; * Public appearances by key spokespersons; * School programs to promote public works projects; and * Sponsorship of public works nights at schools, city council meetings, civic clubs and chambers of commerce.
Surprisingly, there is significant “anti-public works activism” in many areas. Several participants reported incidents in which neighborhood activists took control of agendas simply because they were opposed to any change taking place in their communities. If the obstructionists cannot be made to understand the importance of a project, then it becomes vitally important to cultivate new supporters who will stand up to them.
Coping with new local, state and federal regulations is an ongoing struggle for all communities. Expert consultants should be hired to track legislation and to keep public works managers informed of legislation that could affect small and rural communities. Since most small communities cannot afford to do that on their own, it may be necessary to develop a regional agreement on cost-sharing to pay for the specialist.
Public works officials also need to monitor legislation to ensure that any new regulations include processes for appeals and waivers. Participation in stakeholders’ meetings, following regulations and legislation on the Internet, and meeting regularly with state and federal legislators and their staffs can be critical.
Public works departments have never before faced such a wide array of challenges to their operations. Consequently, change is not only essential, it is inevitable. One telling quote came out of one of the meetings: “You can’t keep doing things the same way and expect to get different results.”
Bruce Florquist is the public works director for Rawlins, Wyo., and a member of American City & County’s editorial advisory board.