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Credit: Photo: William D. Palmer Jr.

Main Street in Lyons, Colo., is quiet and clean.

My home is on a dirt road about a mile outside of the tiny town of Lyons, Colo. My “neighbors” are an independent bunch who raise goats and build their own homes. Typical of people who live in the country, far from cities and towns, they are relatively self-sufficient. We have our own infrastructure of wells and septic tanks, and our road gets graded only once a year when it starts becoming impassable. If there's a problem with any of these “services,” we fix it ourselves or call a serviceman, fully expecting it to take a few days—and to have to pay for it.

Conversely, folks who live in big cities have high expectations for the infrastructure, and the larger the town, the greater the sense of entitlement. Modern cities are virtually founded on complete confidence in an uninterrupted flow of water and power and their citizens are nearly helpless in the face of any disruption. That's not a bad thing, just the inevitable reality of high concentrations of people—they are completely dependent on public works.

In small towns, this dependence and expectation of service also exists but is diminished from that in a larger city. If the water stops flowing from time to time or a street gets torn up for a utility cut, people complain, certainly, but they are less outraged. And the inhabitants of small towns are more self-reliant—they can usually come up with an alternative if a problem arises. But does that necessarily mean the public works departments in small towns are less capable or that the infrastructure is less reliable?

Look, for example, at my little town of Lyons. Town administrator Gary Cinnamon and public works director Scott Daniels approach the problems of small-town government with professionalism and creativity. Although funding is limited, they have come up with ways to bridge the gap and provide high-quality service. I have found that this is more the rule than the exception in small-town America.

Still, our story this month contrasting the structure and problems encountered by public works departments in small towns and large cities does point out some clear differences. But perhaps what's more striking are the similarities. For instance, Cinnamon says, “partnership for us is survival,” while Philadelphia's streets commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson says that their solution is, “synergies among separate departments and separate divisions.” Sounds like the same thing, just approached in different ways.

Smaller towns may be less sophisticated and more informal, but they still can—and mostly do—serve the needs of their constituents. One thing they often lack, though, is a mechanism for getting that point across. Small public works departments should be just as proud of what they accomplish as the nation's largest cities and should use every opportunity to tell that to their citizens.

Bill Palmer
Editor in Chief