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Choosing in-house labor and federal funding to install new curbs and sidewalks proved to be an award-winning decision for Alan Gesford, former public works director for several cities in Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenni Spinner

As former public works director for several Pennsylvania municipalities, Alan Gesford, P.E., has often said, “Give me the authority and the resources, and I will provide the public works service in-house at the least cost.” Here, he shares experiences that informed his view.

Example 1: Before my tenure, a study revealed my municipality could save money by contracting for solid waste collection with a private vendor. The city awarded the contract for substantially less than in-house operations, then sold its trucks and gave the contract oversight responsibilities to the public works director.

Given this information, you could argue that privatizing solid waste collection is the way to go. But you need to analyze the whole situation.

Over the years, the union had gained advantages over the city regarding collection—namely, each truck was manned by four workers. The contractor did the same collection with two workers per truck, cutting personnel costs almost in half. Even with their overhead and profit, they could bid the project way under our budget.

Problems I had with the contract operations (responsiveness, ill-written contract specifications, etc.) notwithstanding, this was probably still a money saver for the city. In retrospect, however, the city should never have let the union dictate the number of workers on each truck. With two, we could have kept the operation in-house for less than contracting out and had much more control.

Example 2: Discussions on how to handle work on numerous new curbs and sidewalks were leading to contracts. At my request, we took the work in-house.

Using a federally funded program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), I hired a retired concrete man as crew supervisor, then workers for him to train. This was what the CETAprogram was all about—training people with new skills to provide them with a future vocation. I received a state award for this program under a Government Innovations award program.

Example 3: After receiving final plans for a major stormwater project from a consulting firm under contract, the city ran into required federal and state environmental approvals.

The project and design had started before my becoming public works director. My city engineer and I agreed that with two additional engineering personnel, we could redesign the project in-house, address the environmental aspects, and end up with a much better project. We “disengaged” the consultant and took it in-house to a successful completion.

Example 4: We needed to complete an infiltration-inflow project for all city sewers to meet federal regulations and mandates. After much discussion and research, we decided to purchase a sewer TV and grout unit vehicle. We handle system inspections and repairs in-house.

We wrote equipment bid specs, including required equipment training, and set up a two-year program for project completion. We ended up renting the equipment and crew to surrounding municipalities as needed; this generated some revenue for us and also helped save them some money, too.

I really should say, “Give me the authority and resources, and I will get the job done in-house at less cost, better quality, and better control—all advantages toward better government and satisfied citizens.”

— Gesford is technology transfer specialist with the Institute of State and Regional Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg.