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And so begins another year of doing what you do best: making the most of the resources at hand. I'm sorry to tell you this skill will continue to be put to the test in 2012: While the private sector teeters on the brink of economic recovery, most governments have hit rock bottom.

Both the American Institute of Architects and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reported small gains for 2011. But that growth was and is tenuous. Federal foot-dragging on aviation, surface transportation, and water programs could cancel out the gains we've seen in commercial, energy, housing, and manufacturing construction. AGC reported last month that year-to-date spending on sewage and waste disposal was down 13%; water supply, down 8%.

The decline also may have been due to material prices, which the organization says rose 6.2% last year and are expected to climb (and remain volatile) this year.

So what's the good news?! Contractors remain loathe to pass on the increases. That puts them between the proverbial rock and a hard place and you in the driver's seat.

“While the gap is beginning to narrow just a bit, prices for most construction materials have risen far more during the past year than the amount contractors can charge for completing projects,” says AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson.

How much longer they can afford to do so remains to be seen. AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr warns that "contractors are likely to shed even more jobs and may even be forced out of business because of declining demand and increasing materials costs if Congress can't work through its differences and fails to enact short and long term investment bills.” (See page 15 for the latest on surface transportation legislation.)

How much you can continue to exploit this market remains to be seen. In the meantime, we're getting wonderful examples of government ingenuity as city, county, special district, state, and township employees maintain quality of life for their communities (see right). If you have any of your own, please share!

- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief

ARE YOU A MOTHER OF INVENTION?*

Last month's “Top 10 tools” featured two reader innovations:

  • Retired Missouri DOT engineer Bob Lannert's TowPlow attachment (“One truck + two plows = clear roads,” Dec. 2011, page 42), now sold by Viking-Cives
  • Cincinnati Stormwater Management Utility supervisor Jerry Taylor's Matt-Locks-USA storm grate lock (“Ingenuity breeds theft-prevention business,” Dec. 2011, page 44)

Tell us about your own invention so we can highlight your excellent ability to do more with less.

Send the following to edit@pwmag.com:

  • Product description
  • Photo
  • Your name and how we can reach you.

Here's to another year of ingenious problem-solving!

* Frank Zappa, anyone?