Launch Slideshow

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The post-recession shuffle

Click here to see the results of our survey!

The post-recession shuffle

Click here to see the results of our survey!

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Editor’s note: We told you recovery would be tough and long. In December more than 500 Public Works readers responded to our annual forecast survey. You told us: Operations and capital budgets are not yet growing, you’re doing more with fewer people and losing institutional knowledge as baby boomers retire, and, as of press time, another federal shutdown is looming.

Also, your ability to spend still very much depends on:

  • The impact of the slowly improving real estate market on property tax revenues;
  • The mixed bag of increasing consumer confidence and high levels of unemployment; and
  • Deep, across-the-board cuts in federal funding via the federal sequester.

There is good news, however.

The National League of Cities’ most recent survey of 350 finance officers reveals that 72% of municipalities were better able to meet financial needs in 2013 than in 2012.

In a shift from previous years, more respondents reported increases in the local tax base (51%) and the overall health of the local economy (66%). They also project slightly higher general funds; the first increase reported in the annual survey since 2006.

More encouraging news: Counties report higher property values (72%) and more property transactions (64%, a good indicator of real estate activity); and foreclosure rates are leveling off (23%), according to a Thomson Reuters and National Association of Counties survey. Tax departments, assessor’s offices, and recording offices from 712 counties participated in the survey.

Let’s hope your budgets soon follow the same trends.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, the Safe Drinking Water Act requires wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures to contain less than 0.25% lead. For the most part, new components and repair parts must meet the new “lead-free” definition. Will your drinking water system (or department) comply? Why or why not?

Lack of funding is the primary reason respondents gave for not complying. Remember: This rule applies only when fixtures have to be replaced; until then, they’re grandfathered in. One brave soul says, “We’ve decided to refuse because it’s too costly and unnecessary.”

By June 13, 2014, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices requires all traffic signs (as opposed to street signs) to have been assessed and a methodology developed to ensure they meet minimum retroreflectivity requirements. Will your department make the deadline? Why or why not?

In addition to lack of both financial and personnel resources, respondents who won’t make the deadline cite inventory software trouble and lackluster support from elected officials as reasons. “We’ll work on it as time and money allow,” says one.

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On Sept. 30, 2014, the most recent federal highway bill expires. Let’s assume MAP-21 is extended in some way (direct reauthorization, short-term extension, etc.). In general, how have the changes in this funding program affected your department?

Respondents who checked “Other” are taking a wait-and-see approach. Many aren’t happy with the legislation’s impact on programs, especially Safe Routes to School (SRTS).

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Unlike previous federal highway bills, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) doesn’t provide funding specifically for SRTS. Instead, the program was rolled into a single, larger program—the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)—along with several others including the Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails programs.

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The Federal Highway Administration did this as part of the Obama administration’s goal to streamline dispersing federal support so projects are delivered more quickly. While a laudable goal, the result is that SRTS applicants now compete for funding. They also must be prepared to contribute 20% in matching funds.

These potential drawbacks are potentially offset by the fact that state DOTs must spend their TAP allocation.

Which leads back to a perennial bone of contention, as this respondent’s comment shows: “We’re a local municipality. We have a highway through town and a plan that for the last 40 years has been waiting for funding. The state hasn’t reviewed new major projects in more than 10 years because of a lack of funding and we’re unable to qualify for federal funding until the state enumerates the project.”

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