Tackling technology in small communities
In April, at the annual conference of Public Technology Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., Associate Editor Lindsay Isaacs moderated a roundtable discussion with city officials who lead technology projects in small communities. The participants were Richard Averett, finance director for San Carlos, Calif.; Richard Kerbel, town manager for North Kingstown, R.I.; Lance Martin, communications coordinator for South Sioux City, Neb.; Barry Smith, IT director for Gaithersburg, Md.; Susan Waters, communications assistant for Overland Park, Kan.; and Linda Witko, assistant city manager for Casper, Wyo. The discussion focused on the challenges small communities face with technology issues, including staying current with technology, finding and keeping qualified employees, funding technology projects and working with technology vendors.
Lindsay Isaacs (LI): Do you think technology projects in your smaller cities are on par with projects that the large cities are completing, or do you feel like you’re behind larger cities?
Lance Martin (LM): Thanks to the progressive leadership in my city, we’re pretty much on par with the larger cities, just on a smaller scale. I think the fiber optic ring that we have is the envy of a lot of larger cities.
Richard Kerbel (RK): I would say that I suffer a little jealousy of larger jurisdictions. I come to a conference like this, and, just hearing what everybody’s doing, I say, “Oh, man. I really want to do that.” And we can’t do it. We can’t do it because of money. That’s a big issue with us, as it is, I’m sure, with everybody.
Susan Waters (SW): There are some things in Overland Park where we’re ahead of the larger jurisdictions in our area, and, in other small cities, some things we might be behind. We just launched an online information center where people can make comments on building projects and zoning and things of that nature. We have an online food inspection site where people can look up the inspection data on restaurants, what credit cards they offer, their hours and smoking restrictions.
Richard Averett (RA): When it comes to something like GIS, I think we’re behind the big jurisdictions, and we’re pretty much in awe of what they’re doing. But we’ll get there Ñ just not as quickly.
There are opportunities in the local jurisdictions to move fast. If it’s not a high cost item, we can certainly turn on a dime. Most people that have been in the larger jurisdictions breathe a sigh of relief when they come to a smaller jurisdiction because you can make projects work a lot faster.
LI: How do you compete with larger jurisdictions for technology employees?
Linda Witko (LW): We’ve learned to grow our own expertise because we can’t compete with the big cities in terms of the salaries they can offer to attract some of the technicians. But we can take talented people and develop them. Because we do that, they’re more likely to have strong ties to the organization and the community.
One of the things that we struggled with when we started our GIS was that we contracted out all the development portions of it. We had a wonderful system in place, but we didn’t have anybody who knew how to use it.
We finally recruited a GIS person that had a lot of experience and background from a larger jurisdiction Ñ was a small cog in the big machine Ñ who came to us and was our cog, our machine. When she left (she went to a larger jurisdiction, where they paid her twice what we were paying her), it gave us the incentive to go looking for somebody with the same kind of background so we could keep going. We weren’t able to attract anybody, so we took the person that had been working underneath her and said, “What do we need to do to develop this person?” We’ve now got someone with an engineering background who is our GIS person doing some really good things, but we’ve had him just the last couple of years by developing our own talent.
Barry Smith (BS): While we can’t compete on money, if you give somebody the opportunity to work on many things, where they know in every area they can make a huge impact, it’s a much better opportunity. I’ve been able to retain my staff almost entirely with competitive salaries, but they could have at any point left for more money.
LM: There’s a downside to what Barry’s saying because É working for a town the size of mine and being the communications guy, I wind up working on anything that runs on electricity. I’m in charge of phone systems, traffic signal lights, replacing light bulbs Ñ I’m doing it all. I’m the only guy who knows how to splice fiber in the town. It’s very challenging, I have to admit.
BS: The pro side to that is if you have just enough people to get by, no one is exclusively devoted to grunt work. Everyone has the ability to do new projects, but you still have some day-to-day responsibilities.
RK: One of the other aspects of the staff that I’ve found very satisfying is we will find somebody anywhere in the organization that is talented with technology. It’s good for the organization because you get to see people cross organizational lines a lot.
LI: Do you think small cities are seen as stepping stones for people to get into positions with larger cities?
RK: I would say a lot of the employees in probably all of our jurisdictions started out living in the jurisdiction. It’s just wonderful because there’s a good chance that you won’t lose that person to a bigger jurisdiction.
RA: It can work both ways. A lot of people equate success with population, with budget size, with staffing size and all these things. We have people in our organization that just couldn’t be happier where they are. Others are feeling overwhelmed because we’ve grown to 130 staff members, and other people are padding their resumes to go to the next level.
BS: You can do more in a smaller city, especially in growing cities, so I actually think it goes the other way. People that started in local government know why they’re going to a smaller jurisdiction. So if you know why you’re going there, you will stay a little bit longer.
LW: Small jurisdictions are difficult for single people sometimes. We get a lot of people who come into our community with their families, and they wouldn’t want to go to a larger community once they get settled with their families. People who I know have talent to go on someplace else make a definite decision to stay in the community they like. They’re so loyal to the organization and the community. They’re looking for something else besides a paycheck and the recognition.
LI: Is it any easier to find qualified technology employees in the current economy?
LW: Our last recruitment was for a network technician in the police department. We had the best applicants we have ever had from the Denver metropolitan area.
I don’t know how many other positions might open, but I’m saying to people that, if we need technology people, this is the time to go out and recruit because they’re looking. And they’re looking for security; they’re looking for less stress; and they’re looking for a less-than-one-hour commute to work. So they’re looking at the smaller entities as a place to go for a better quality of life.
BS: It is easier to get people now. We put out an ad for a 25-hour-a-week intern at $8 to $10 an hour. To put it in perspective, Montgomery County pays their part timers $10 to $13 an hour and Rockville, Md., pays $9 to $11 an hour, so we were still below even what the other jurisdictions were paying for part time help. I got six incredible candidates, and I had to turn away five of them. I would have hired any of them in a heartbeat. Not only are people available, but they’re trying to switch careers.
SW: We had the same thing with our Web site intern. I went out to get one last summer, and we got probably 50 to 60 applications. The problem was that all of them were graduates that had their master’s degrees, and this was a $10 to $11 an hour summer job. I could hardly find college students in that whole pile of resumes.
LI: How much detail about the technology projects that happen in your city do you need or want to know?
RA: Just speaking as a department head and not as a finance person, I want to know how it works and how it might impact my department, but I don’t need to know a lot else.
SW: We always want to know at least the basics on everything because we’re responsible for communicating with the public. If it’s some kind of application that will affect the public or a large number of employees, we want to be able to communicate with them and tell them how it’s going to affect them. The little details I don’t need.
LW: One of the things I learned at the PTI conference last year is 95 percent of government technology projects fail. We were seeing probably that exact percentage in our jurisdiction. They fail either because they go over budget, or they fail because they don’t ever get completed. The reason is that they’re not managed very well.
When I learned that, all of a sudden I realized I have to know more. I didn’t want to know more, but I have to so that I can make sure this doesn’t continue to happen to us.
I have had to educate myself about technology and how it’s being used in other governmental entities. I ask all the questions now that nobody was ever asking before. How much is this going to cost? Who’s going to run the project? Who’s going to backfill her position while she’s doing this? How much time is it going to take? These are questions nobody asked when they started projects.
I have to know more now. I have to know enough to ask questions.
LI: In a tight economy in a small city, how do you fund technology projects?
BS: We take a third of the cost of every server and a third of the cost of every phone and put it in a replacement fund. So when it comes to replacing something that you know you have to replace anyway (a PC, a printer), you have the money there for it.
The only time I have to worry about [funding] new technology projects is during the CIP process. Let the city manager be aware of the cost of new technology.
LW: We’re the same way; our technology projects compete with every other capital improvement project. That’s why you have to bring all the department heads together so it’s everybody’s priority.
LI: How do you gain support for funding new technology projects?
RK: It makes it easier to support the investment when the citizens gain the benefit of the technology. [For example,] we did a revaluation a year ago, and all the revaluation data was on the Web. The last time we did the revaluations, [residents] had a 10-minute time limit in the library to use the data. Now, people access it on the Web.
I think if we did another revaluation, and [we did not put the information on the Web because] we could save $30,000, I think the citizens would be upset, the council would be upset, and we would be upset because it’s not giving them the level of service they are used to now.
RA: It’s service functionality that you’re selling. I don’t fancy myself a technologically savvy person or a great salesperson, but I’m a great advocate for technology. I want the job done, and if technology can help you get that done, you sell the functionality of it.
We introduced our software that allowed people to register for instructional classes online. One of the recreation supervisors estimated we could do $30,000 on the first day of registration for new classes. We actually made $130,000. So to take away that functionality now would be very difficult. Our community’s very savvy. They do a lot on the Internet. They expect us to offer that service. It’s not technology in itself that we’re selling; it’s what the technology can do for us.
LI: Do you partner with other jurisdictions to help share the costs of technology projects?
LM: A lot of the time, we’ll look for partners for more than just technology projects. Anything we can partner with, we’ll partner with. That’s a big way we like to pay for things.
Recently, cops wanted mobile data terminals. The city partnered with [Dakota County], which already had mobile data terminals and already had a server and the trunking system in place. [The county wasn’t transferring] any records over the mobile data; it was just doing license plate lookups. So the city bought the record software in exchange for being able to use the county’s server.
We do a lot of things like that. To help pay for the city’s fiber ring, we partnered with the community school district.
RA: We do a lot with [Joint Power Authorities] and partnering with other jurisdictions. I think in the technology field, we could do a lot more.
Technology has a lot of gates to go through. It has to be on this platform or that platform. It has to work with this and that. It has to interface with Hansen or whatever else you have. I search for partners all the time, and everyone says, “Yes, great concept,” but, when it comes down to it, everyone has their idiosyncrasies and their gates.
BS: [Partnering is] also a political problem. If there’s just one compromise, a department head will say, “You know, you’re going to ask me to do something, and I’m not going to be able to control my own destiny.” That’s where the things just fall apart, and it takes political leadership to say, “Yes, we want to do it.” Every time we’ve tried to do something where we’re truly pairing on infrastructure, it just fails because people want ultimate control.
RK: One of the things you have to be careful of with sharing, when you’re in a state as small as Rhode Island, the state government quickly says, “Oh, it makes perfectly good sense for you to share, so we’re going to mandate that you share.” A mandated share is a terrible thing. [If I’m going to partner with other jurisdictions on a project,] I want to pick the jurisdictions that I work with.
LI: What are your impressions of working with vendors?
RK: When we deal with a vendor, we don’t carry the weight of the bigger jurisdictions. In Rhode Island, [one vendor provides the tax collection software for every city in the state]. We want [to change the software] to have Web access to the data, but, if the other bigger jurisdictions in Rhode Island don’t want to do it, we’re nowhere. The vendor won’t make enough money off of us. That is a dilemma with a smaller jurisdiction, whereas if you’re a bigger jurisdiction, you just say, “O.K. I want to have this, this and this.” They say, “Okay.”
LW: The one problem I have with vendors Ñ the large vendors particularly Ñ is the way they make their money selling the same thing over and over again. When you’re talking about planning documents or system design, you want it to be for your entity. So you get frustrated when you look at what they give you and ask, “What makes you think this would work here?” And they haven’t really taken the time to get to know your organization and your needs. They’re just trying to sell you the same system they sold another state.
BS: The worst thing is when you see the proposal and it has the word “business” in it. Not only are they [selling the product to] different communities, they’re doing it for different businesses. There are great vendors that are just for local governments.
LM: You definitely have to look out for the vendor who is trying to tailor your need to their product. You see that all the time. There are a lot of great vendors that will sit down and listen to your needs and tailor their product to your need, but there are also some vendors out there that try to cram your need into their product.
LW: Particularly if they’re coming to a small community that they don’t feel is sophisticated enough to evaluate what they’re saying. I always ask for other places that they’ve worked with. I want reference names. I’m going to follow up and call and find out how this vendor worked with them before I’m going forward with a proposal.