By Stephen Stanziano
Editor's note:The program described in the following article was honored for “Innovative Economic Development” as part of the 2010 Innovation in Governance Awards Program established by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and New Jersey League of Municipalities. A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of New Jersey Municipalities magazine, a publication of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Government agencies have many ways — contracted services, privatization, inter-local service agreements — to reduce the financial burden on taxpayers. At the other end of the spectrum, though, there's another way to save money: doing things in-house.
Most public works operations here in New Jersey self-perform traditional services such as trash collection, grass cutting, vehicle maintenance, and snow plowing, often in concert with an outside contractor. In Manchester Township , we do much more: pave roads, build parks, install water and sewer mains, pour concrete sidewalks, erect steel buildings, renovate offices, and remove all snow and ice within our 80-square-mile service area.
With each challenge, we don't decide if we can do it but how we are going to do it. That comes from experience, which breeds confidence. Every successful endeavor empowers our workforce to try something new — to try the impossible and discover that nothing really is.
Ask for the (seemingly) impossible
How do you empower your employees? By asking them to do something they don't think they can. Better yet, ask them to do something you think they can't. Ask them to do the unthinkable, the impossible, something outside of their normal routine, something that's normally contracted out.
Keep in mind that, beneath the surface, each employee is unique. They all have certain skills, hidden talents, and life experiences. These assets need to be harvested, utilized, and maximized. If managed correctly, the end result is higher overall productivity for the entire organization. That's the bottom line, now more than ever.
If you ask your team to undertake a project for the first time and they fail, there's still an upside. Everyone learns from it — management, supervisors, and workers. Failure prepares you for the next time. And there must be a next time. That's when you ask them to do it again…and again…and yet again if you have to. As long as something is learned each step of the way, you've all benefited.
Once it's finally finished — which could happen on the first try — you've empowered your workforce. They've proven themselves, quieted the skeptics (and there will be skeptics), and are motivated and ready to embrace the next challenge that comes their way.
Everything's an opportunity
A contractor has to cover the costs of labor, equipment, and materials, as well as overhead and profit.
Conversely, employees' salaries and benefits are already part of the township's operating budget. Equipment costs are also lower, depending on the community's inventory (ours is broad). Cooperative purchasing offers municipalities the opportunity to buy materials at a discount. We save money on asphalt, salt, gas and diesel, to name a few.
That's why, by doing things ourselves, my team has saved township taxpayers anywhere from 30% to 50%.
We don't, for example, contract out snow removal services. Costs for neighboring towns similar in size exceed ours by 35% to 400%. We even make the brine solution we apply to roadways before snow begins falling. Occasionally we realize indirect savings by enabling our schools to open a day or two earlier than surrounding communities after a snow storm. It's yet another challenge we decided we could solve on our own.
Our tax exempt status offers another savings a contractor can never realize.
For projects funded through our capital improvement fund or a bond ordinance, all costs including labor and equipment can be charged against these monies. This can create a surplus in the public works operating budget, which ultimately impacts taxpayers (and ratepayers for water and sewer projects).
If you sharpen your pencil and do the math, the savings we achieve are real and significant.
Enlist everyone you can
One of our most noteworthy undertakings was building Memorial Park, a 30-acre wooded area with extensive recreational facilities and numerous walking trails. Estimates for the park's design and construction were close to $1 million, but a bond ordinance raised only $465,000. If ever there was an “in-house” project for Manchester Township, this was it.
At the center of the site is a monument to World War II veterans consisting of seven granite walls, an 8-foot bronze statue on a 50-foot circular stamped concrete pad, and an array of American and military flags. Each wall is 6 feet high, 4 feet wide, and weighs more than 1,000 pounds. When we contacted a local monument company about performing the work, they said the walls and bases would have to be shipped and drilled in Vermont. We went with Plan B — doing it ourselves — and saved a lot of time and money. My team set the walls on a granite base after core drilling through almost 3 feet of granite to install steel pins.
Department of Public Works employees executed the park's design by constructing fields; installing playground equipment; paving roads, parking lots, and trails; erecting more than 50 flagpoles (the tallest being 70 feet); installing precast concrete signs; and planting nearly 100 trees and shrubs.
Division of Utilities (water and sewer) employees installed more than 700 feet of vinyl post and rail fence. Secretarial staff planted flowers throughout the site. Engineering employees led the effort, with help from the public works department's Division of Data Processing, to restore several pieces of salvaged World War II equipment and vehicles for display along the park's trails.
Despite a very bad winter and the wettest March on record, the park was ready for the dedication ceremony in April 2010. The total cost including labor, equipment, and materials was less than $400,000. No change orders, no deadline extensions — just a community improvement project completed on time and under budget. And the confidence our team attained from the undertaking was priceless.
Creative thinking required
Not everything can be done in-house, but when it can, it almost always results in savings. When tasks can be done more cost-effectively by an outside contractor, employees are freed to find more things they can do less expensively — and further empowered in the process.
Tasks and projects, as well as methodology, vary in each community. Much depends on staffing resources, equipment, and commitments, as well as the ability of management and supervisors to lead by example.
Recently, a public works director from a nearby municipality asked how we manage to do so many things in-house. He has more employees and a much smaller municipality — both in population and footprint — but isn't able to do much beyond the basic public works functions.
Our secret: Empower your workforce. Empowerment builds pride — and pride is the strength of public works.