Click here for this month's Web extras:
From "In response to "How to go green by 2013" (October 2010, Page 26)"
From "2011" Industry calendar"
From "Painful priorities"
From "Sneak peek: 2011 World of Concrete most innovative products"
From "Pollution-fighting pacement"
Click here for the ADA corner
with Michelle S. Ohmes
[Letters to the editor]
FROM "IN RESPONSE TO "HOW TO GO GREEN BY 2013" (OCTOBER 2010, PAGE 26)"
Additional information on street sweeping can be found here.
[Cover story: 2011 Outlook]
FROM "PAINFUL PRIORITIES"
Maintaining your operation's position in the organizational hierarchy.
Would your community eliminate the public works directorship?
Results of our exclusive reader poll show it can happen.
Communities are looking everywhere for savings, including (so we've heard) eliminating the public works director and spreading out the responsibilities to other positions within the organization. Are your elected officials considering eliminating and/or merging the director of public works position with another? Have you heard talk of other communities doing so? Please feel free to share your thoughts on this strategy (don't worry: we don't publish any comments without contacting the respondent first).
- "Our director of public works, assistance director of public works, traffic operations manager, and engineering manager positions have already been eliminated. The engineering manager was also the county engineer so those duties were transferred to the supervisor of engineering design. The county is now in the process of combining the public works department with the real estate and development review sections to eliminate any duplication of services and further reduce staff."
Every November, we e-mail a questionnaire asking PUBLIC WORKS readers to share their operations and capital budget expectations for the coming year. Our annual "outlook" survey also poses one or two state-of-the-profession questions.
This year the issue was what you've read in the headline above (the full text is provided at the end of this article). A reader who'd heard neighboring communities were eliminating the "public works director" title alerted us to this potential trend.
Infrastructure represents the average community's single largest chunk of taxpayer-funded assets. While tempting from a salary-and-benefits perspective, eliminating this particular directorship endangers the assets and services that enable a community to attract revenue producers like new residents and businesses is dangerous. Because of the potential consequences, we suspected such drastic measures were among the final attempts to plug the gap between declining revenues and the cost of doing business.
But we weren't sure, so we asked you.
More than three-quarters of respondents had something to say about how their operation has been affected by the Great Recession. We divided their comments into four categories.
YES (19 responses). One way we categorize responses to our surveys is by EPA region. While affirmative responses came from all 10, Region 5 (much of the Midwest) and Region 9 (which includes financially strapped California and Las Vegas) were hardest hit.
Mostly, cities and counties get the position off the books by sharing the role with neighboring communities, consolidating public works with another function (usually engineering) to form a single department, or if the community's small enough, contracting it out.
Some respondents have seen strategies backfire.
- "We did this a couple of years ago and changed back to having a separate public works director. I doubt we'll try this again."
- "Such action would be counterproductive. A community needs a well-qualified public works director to help it through the lean times. In fact, because activity is decreasing, the positions that should be eliminated are administrative; i.e., purchasing, HR, and finance."
You're not a politician, but the position of public works director is political.
One or two respondents indicated communities eliminated the position to remove a long-term underperforming employee.
- "99% of the time these are threats to try to get action out of the director who's entrenched in the position, refusing to look at things differently, and officials are tired of "no."
NO (180 responses). "Sounds like a chicken without a head," wrote one respondent, which probably echoes what you're thinking.
Reassuringly, this was by far the most common response. In fact, some communities are hiring directors specifically to identify redundancies and restructure public works or implement expensive initiatives, such as an asset management system, that are expected to pay off over the long term through greater organizational and operational efficiency.
- "Our new city manager is reinstituting the conventional public works department structure and conducting a nationwide search for a director."
- "Our director just left. We're filling that position but not replacing our planning director."
Most communities, though, have already consolidated related functions - mainly engineering and water and sewer - under public works, or are about to do so. This cements the directorship's position by creating the community's single largest department.
Several communities have eliminated middle management and pushed responsibility upward.
- "We had two levels of directors (executive director and director) at the beginning of 2010, now there's only one (director). The executive director was eliminated due to redundancy as the position was basically a figurehead for our elected officials."
- "This jurisdiction combined public works director with city engineer by requiring a PE license for public works director."
While both tactics enhance job security, consolidating too much responsibility within a single position defrays that employee's ability to manage day-to-day operations, much less think strategically. Everyone suffers.
- "Our director's also wearing the hats of city engineer, and building and safety director. This is a huge amount of responsibility for one person and detrimental to other governmental functions."
- "A nearby community eliminated the positions of police chief, road foreman, and planning director, and spread those duties between a single full-time position and one new part-time employee. My leaders are paying a great deal of attention to how that works out, hinting that because I have 17 years of previous experience as a public works director, I could do that in addition to my current responsibilities."
- "We may merge the positions of public works director and city engineer. This won't hurt the department while the economy is slow. But when development picks up again, I'm concerned the staffing level won't allow for in-house review of developer plans with proposed public infrastructure."
Cities are sharing services and personnel (in at least one case, traffic engineer) with other cities and/or the county. (Looking into how well this arrangement works would make a great PUBLIC WORSK story; if you have any thoughts on the subject, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- "Based on retirement or resignation, the position of superintendent of public works in surrounding localities is now consolidated with a superintendent or director from another municipality, filling the two positions; for example, the city director of public works is also county highway commissioner and the town highway superintendent is also the village superintendent of public works."
NO, BUT ... (57 responses). When elected officials feel that further consolidation or trimming would compromise service levels and public safety, privatization and outsourcing make any government position potentially vulnerable.
- "All you hear now is outsourcing and shared services, so at some point you can only expect positions to be eliminated or consolidated."
- "I completed a privatization study that shows we could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if we let the private sector manage our business."
- "In 2010 all fleet maintenance (sheriff, parks, etc.) was outsourced to save funds. For 2011, talk is that IT departments around the county may also be farmed out or merged into one operation with fewer employees."
DON'T KNOW, DOESN'T APPLY (44 responses).
HOW TO AVOID (FURTHER) CUTS AND CONSOLIDATIONS. What can you do to ensure - as Indiana banker Carolyn McNeill terms it in The APWA Reporter, August issue - you become a municipal savior instead of a municipal scapegoat?
- "Over the years, we've streamlined to meet short- and long-term strategic plans. Because they're meticulously supported by detailed asset management and business plans, elected officials have in-depth knowledge of and have given their support to advance these efforts."
- "Focusing on long-term energy cost reduction, eliminating debt service, and asset management are more beneficial than reducing staff in a 24/7 field."
- "We're careful to fill only those positions that are critical to O&M."
- "There's more resource sharing - sign making, fleet services, loaning construction/heavy equipment - among neighboring cities."
- Stephanie Johnston
PUBLIC WORKS Editor in Chief
FROM "SNEAK PEEK: 2011 WORLD OF CONCRETE MOST INNOVATIVE PRODUCTS"
To see the complete list of the World of Concrete's Most Innovative Products candidates, and to vote online for this year's most novel offerings, visit www.mip2011.com. Winners will be announced in March.
The contest is sponsored by Hanley Wood's Concrete & Masonry Construction Products, a sister magazine to Public Works. For more information about the MIP contest, or World of Concrete, visit www.worldofconcrete.com.
[Out of the Ordinary]
FROM "POLLUTION-FIGHTING PAVEMENT"
Missouri managers test-drive a smog-eating road.
How's the air over there?
A report based on U.S. EPA's Air Quality System database reveals the country's dirtiest areas.