Since 1997, Reno, Sparks and Washoe County, Nev., have had a written agreement to allow the three jurisdictions to share resources for snow and ice control operations. But until four years ago, there was little, if any, sharing going on.
In 2004, representatives from each of the three public works departments began meeting for lunch once a month to discuss challenges they were facing and resources they could share — and they also got to know each other personally. The relationships built in those monthly meetings have made all the difference: Today, the three departments regularly share equipment, facilities and technology, and participate in staff training. “At one point, there was talk of consolidation [of the three districts], but we just decided to go the route of good neighbors,” says Darrell Ellis, Reno streets manager. “We just decided to prove to people that we could work together.”
One of the group’s inter-local agreements allows the three districts to work for each other at any time, and the other is a special arrangement for snow and ice emergencies. The second agreement divides the region into 52 snowplow routes that include portions of different jurisdictions. “[In the event of a snow emergency], we send drivers out and work across city and county lines to get the job done,” Ellis says.
In some other areas, like Minnesota, where the state Department of Transportation (DOT) shares snow and ice resources with cities and counties, a similar phenomenon is common. “Relationships are key to making the partnering effort work, and we, therefore, always need to work on those relationships,” says Steve Lund, Minnesota DOT maintenance engineer.
Working together makes sense
Most roads are maintained by agencies with limited budgets, and the increased maintenance brought on by winter storms stretches finances even tighter. By pooling resources with neighboring jurisdictions, cities and counties can improve their recovery efforts without spending more money. “We need to make every effort to stretch our limited dollars, and partnering is one way of seeing real results,” Lund says.
The Minnesota DOT stretches its budget by contracting with cities to remove snow and ice from state roads within their boundaries. “This reduces the state’s operations within a local road setting and allows the municipality to provide the level of service they desire while getting a certain amount of cost reimbursement,” Lund says.
Other jurisdictions have combined resources to use snow and ice management technology they could not afford individually. In the late 1990s, when the road commissioners from Michigan’s Oakland and Wayne counties traveled to a meeting together, they began discussing their need for better technology to monitor fleet vehicles. “[They] were both looking at a particular new technology program for road maintenance, and they decided it would be a good idea to join forces instead,” says Dennis Kolar, deputy managing director and county highway engineer for Oakland County’s Road Commission.
After returning from the meeting, the two executives invited their counterparts in Macomb County and Detroit to join them, and in 1999, the four agencies formed Southeastern Michigan Snow and Ice Management (SEMSIM). By joining forces, the partnership secured federal funding to develop the first regional GPS-based winter road maintenance fleet management system in the United States. The partners worked with Dallas-based ACS, formerly Orbital Sciences, to develop a unique, Internet-based fleet management program. “A lot of vendors carry products that allow you to track your fleet,” Kolar says. “What makes us different is that we can monitor not just where the truck is, but whether the plow is up or down, how much material is left in the back of the truck, and we can conduct two-way communication with the driver.”
For almost a decade, the four agencies in Southeastern Michigan have used the custom tool to make better fleet management decisions. “The ability to see where your vehicles are and what they’re doing makes a big difference,” Kolar says. “We also have the ability to replay how we’ve done things, and we do that for training. Some drivers have been accused of causing accidents and hitting things, and we can do a playback and show that our driver was nowhere near a specific accident.”
What’s mine is yours
While pooling resources can help agencies like SEMSIM access advanced technologies, it often just means sharing basic road equipment or facilities. For instance, Reno owns 11 sweepers that help the city meet its goal to remove snow from roads within four days of a major storm. “But normally, we don’t need that many,” Ellis says. “[Sparks and Washoe County] don’t have as many sweepers, so that’s something we’re able to share with them. The others have other equipment that we don’t have, and they share that with us.”
In Minnesota, such “informal” sharing is “generally at the grassroots level and does not involve a contract or any exchange of money,” Lund says. “This effort mostly involves sharing or swapping of materials and equipment. We encourage this effort and look for equitable exchanges to make the partnership effort work for all parties.”
When agencies need more help than is available informally, the state DOT oversees more formal agreements. “We have county and state snow plows being relocated to one another’s shops with the driver, putting snow and ice services closer to the plow route and closer to the public they serve,” Lund says. “We have multiple locations where state and local jurisdictions are collocating to take advantage of shared buildings or assets for things like salt storage, brine production or loader operation.”
In addition to sharing tangible goods like loaders and buildings, partners also can share valuable intangibles, such as knowledge and processes. “Now, we benchmark our work and if somebody’s doing better in some areas, they’ll [train] the other [districts] or work with them a few days to see what they’re doing differently,” Ellis says. “We call and run things by each other just as friends and managers.”
Overcoming the challenges
As with any partnership, sharing resources for winter road maintenance is not without challenges. “Some are problems; some are details,” Lund says. “This is particularly true on the formal side of partnering that involves getting the contract specifics right. Some of the challenges involve costing out of shared supplies, shared work areas and personnel issues.”
In Nevada, the Reno-Sparks-Washoe County partnership overcomes such challenges by closely following their written agreement and by maintaining communication. “We do work orders and track the time, and we try not to let anybody get more than $10,000 ahead of the others,” Ellis says. “If it gets too far, we’ll make it up by giving each other material or something. At the end of the year, if one agency is $10,000 or $15,000 ahead of the others, the region would pay for it. But it’s not about the money; it’s just about getting the work done.”
That attitude of simply sharing responsibility and “being good neighbors” has trickled down from the leadership of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County to field workers. “We really don’t have many challenges [in running the partnership] because we meet every month and we have a good relationship,” Ellis says. “We’re often all dealing with the same issues at the same time, and that’s challenging, but the camaraderie we have between the three of us helps.”
Perhaps because of the open communication and positive attitudes at the top, getting front line workers on board has been easy. “The workers like the opportunity to work in different areas with different people,” Ellis says. “They like the opportunity to learn new things and how to do things differently. They all share how they do things and why they do things a certain way and learn from each other. They seem to like the change in atmosphere.”
Public works departments that are interested in working with their neighbors can start the process easily, according to those with experience. Ellis recommends simply building relationships first before drawing up formal agreements. “Start having meetings without partnering, just to discuss areas you need help in,” he says. “You just need to get everyone on the same page and make sure everyone understands we’re all doing the same things and we just want to do them well.”
Then, discussions can continue to iron out details. “First, everyone has to know what each other’s resources are and what areas they can help in,” Ellis says. “That should happen even before talking to upper management or going through formal channels of forming partnerships. Just get it out on the table and determine how it could work before moving forward.”
While neighboring agencies can be of great assistance, Lund recommends that departments think bigger than that, too. “Contact your state agencies,” he says. “They have the same mission, goals, customer and fiscal concerns that you have; partnering can improve your service and lower your cost.”
Just as relationships build foundations for resource partnerships, they also are essential for maintaining such agreements successfully. “It’s all about keeping the lines of communication open,” Kolar says. “Developing those relationships becomes a side benefit [of the partnership]. We’ve compared what we do and how we do things, so now it’s easier to pick up the phone and call someone else at another department when we have an issue. [The partnership has led to] a lot of exchange of ideas, which has been a big plus.”
— Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.