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During a recession, organizations shouldn't eliminate the most knowledgeable position. Photo: MarsBars | iStockphoto

By Julius Hansen

Communities are getting out of hand in their attempts to balance the budget. Some are doing away with the public works directorship, and the trend needs to stop.

Cities and counties deploy a number of tactics to relieve themselves of the financial burden of senior-level positions.

One community waited until the director retired, then spread that position's responsibilities among other divisions of the public works department. Another eliminated the directorship and merged public works with another department, whose director is now managing both functions. Yet another eliminated a director who also served as city engineer, having decided that contracting out engineering responsibilities and assigning the director's responsibilities to positions within the department was more cost-effective.

I commend the men and women who've taken on additional roles. But they're being asked to do something that shouldn't be put on their shoulders.

Economic hardship is the worst reason to eliminate the position with the most comprehensive and thorough understanding of a community's assets, resources, and vulnerabilities. It's like trying to cut down on the number of pieces of heavy equipment in a fleet: The idea looks good on paper, but in practice it doesn't work well. A backhoe doesn't load trucks like a front-end loader, and a front-end loader doesn't grade roads like a road grader. If you do either type of work frequently, you need each piece of equipment.

As the community's decision-making authority for all things infrastructure, the director keeps close tabs on all aspects — labor, equipment, time, materials, citizen requests, safety, federal and local regulations — of the department, not just whether or not services are being provided.

Directors are well-acquainted with problem-solving because that's what we do on a daily basis. We have the skills and experience to help resolve a community's financial difficulties by suggesting appropriate reductions from our operations. Any salary and benefits gains a community realizes by eliminating this position are ultimately outweighed by unnecessary losses.

Restructuring public works to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively is a viable option — if done correctly; i.e., planned and coordinated by a director.

But if no more cuts are possible, elected officials must have the will to maintain the right level of service at the right cost, and fund it. Cutting expenditures, with precision, is only part of the solution. Revenue must increase as well. In addition, residents who understand a problem are often willing to assume a small additional burden to generate the revenue required to continue receiving a particular service.

Bad morale arises when a community suddenly deems a long-term leadership position expendable. It demonstrates a fundamental and profound lack of support. If the community doesn't care about the services public works provides, why should the department's employees? What about anyone who may have wanted to be the next director? Isn't he or she more likely to move on? A community risks losing valuable future leaders.

The American Public Works Association considers accreditation “the mark of professionalism that indicates that a public works agency has made the commitment to continuous improvement in the delivery of public works operations and services in the community it serves. Accreditation recognizes that an agency's polices, procedures, and practices have been evaluated against nationally recognized, recommended practices” (Public Works Accreditation Process Guide, July 2009).

This is what all of us should be striving for, and I don't see how a department without a leader can get there.

If you're a director, do your best to provide cost-effective service by making improvements to every aspect of your operation. If you haven't already, make it your goal to save the community an amount equivalent to your salary by reducing expenditures creatively.

If you're an elected official or other authority who's considered eliminating the position that's ultimately responsible for your community's single largest investment, please first thoroughly explore other solutions to budgetary shortfalls. Seriously consider the quality-of-life issues that will arise for you and your constituents from infrastructure assets that aren't properly managed.

— Julius Hansen (jhansen@lagrangepark.org) is director of public works for LaGrange Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb of 13,300 residents, and a member of the American Public Works Association's Chicago Metro Chapter in the Suburban Branch.