Credit: Photos: CDM

Team members check in on the water treatment process through the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. The SCADA allows for an overall review and system check of each process element within the treatment facility. Current operating parameters can be verified online from any of the remote SCADA terminals.
At the Trenton Department of Public Works, some maintenance team members at both the water and wastewater facilities are cross-trained , helping reduce overhead costs, provide consistent operations, and provide redundancy in case of emergencies.

With the push to be competitive, public works managers are finding themselves debating whether privatization is the way to efficiency and accountability—while responding to growing service demands. Common to just about every utility manager is the desire to face these challenges strategically. Internal evaluations—department by department, section by section—can provide needed direction. Often, the solution is adapting to a new way of thinking: integration.

Water and wastewater services are no longer completely independent. By addressing them together, utilities are operating efficiently and working toward a unified goal of top-notch service. As a result, more cities are considering integrating their departments into a singular powerhouse. Such was the case for the Trenton, N.J., Department of Public Works, which serves 85,400 people.

Until recently, Trenton's sewer and water utilities operated separately. While they were facing similar challenges—goals for customer service and efficiency—they were experiencing varying success. With a team-oriented environment, cross-trained employees, and sound communication between management and labor, Trenton's sewer utility reported efficient and effective operations. The water utility's experienced pool of employees and operators contributed positively to service, but it was facing challenges, such as poor communication between management and labor; second-tier management could benefit from increased delegation authority; training in discipline procedures needed revisiting; and ways existed to achieve positive improvements in treatment and distribution systems.

“The unions asked for change, and we were aware of these challenges and were prepared to provide support,” said Eric E. Jackson, Trenton's director of public works. “Integration became a way to capitalize on the benefits of operating as one unit. Simultaneously, this was an opportunity to evaluate both entities to determine best practices and identify improvement areas.”

The decision to integrate the two departments administratively, not financially, provides the possibility for several benefits, including:

  • Operating as one, they can draw on the strengths, knowledge, and availability of an expanded labor pool.
  • A combined effort can result in work-place synergies. Each group can draw on the other's positive attributes.
  • Combined administrative and maintenance staffs decrease overhead expenses and facilitate consistency.
  • The ability to cross-train maintenance staff, such as mechanics, reduces staff.