In the works
Larry Koehle, director of public works for Caledon, Canada, will take over the presidency of the Washington-based American Public Works Association (APWA) this month. American City & County spoke with Koehle about the issues facing public works departments and the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Q: What major initiatives do you plan to pursue as APWA president?
A: To be a successful association, we must have clear, shared and compelling answers to where we are going and how we plan to get there. We need a roadmap and a schedule of what we are doing and when we are going to be able to do it. Our new strategic plan does just that, and I think my primary goal will be to implement that plan. Within the plan, we’ve identified our values, which include diversity, inclusiveness, partnerships, service, accountability and sustainability. With these filters, we’ve identified some key priorities for the 2014 vision. We’ll continue to grow our membership base; increase engagement of both new and existing members; strengthen and grow our chapters; enhance awareness, understanding and support for public works in our communities; and provide unparalleled connections, solutions and support to our members.
During my year as president, it will be important to me to keep our mission of education, advocacy and branding at the forefront of our activities. Continuous improvement and modernization of our delivery of educational opportunities, a strong presence of voice in Washington and Ottawa, [Canada,] and our new initiatives in certifications and credentialing will go a long way toward improving our brand for being the go-to place for all that is public works.
With a strong business plan, a good financial foundation and thanks to all the hard work of committee members and the APWA staff, our sound fiscal management practices will continue on course, and our strategy regarding a reserve fund will provide for both the rainy days and for unforeseen projects.
Q: What are the major issues facing public works departments at this time?
A: Although there are many issues that public works directors face on a daily basis, none are more important than the management of the agency’s infrastructure. We need improved, affordable asset management tools that not only facilitate the appropriate inventory records, but also assist in the development of capital planning programs for future programming of repair and replacement projects.
But, having the best capital planning tools does nothing if the funding to carry out these plans is not also available. We need greater acknowledgement of the underfunded priorities that we all have and commitment from all levels of government that these required works will receive adequate funding.
One additional major issue that faces public works directors is adequate and appropriately trained staff. We have an aging population within our profession, [and] we’re trying to attract new, younger engineers to the public works departments. APWA, through its initiatives, is trying very hard to do that, and I think that, hopefully, over the years we’ll go a long way toward helping public works directors hire new and very energetic staff.
Q: Has ARRA met your membership’s expectations so far? If not, what are the major problems?
A: There’s no question that the economic downturn has had a noticeable effect on public works agencies, and [ARRA] is a step in the right direction in creating jobs. But, it really isn’t the solution for the lack of investment in infrastructure. The work that’s being done from the funds that are being provided is all needed, of course, and they do provide some investment in infrastructure, but the funding is still lacking at the local level, especially on transportation and water, wastewater and environmental programs.
Nearly three-quarters of the funding has gone to short-term, road paving projects rather than long-term work, like repairing our bridges and building new highways. There isn’t adequate commitment to long-term funding for the significant shortfall that we see right now in infrastructure spending. So, although we appreciate the stimulus funding, and we’re making every effort to use that funding to do shovel-ready projects, there are significant needs still out there that are being underfunded.