Making our Local Tax Dollars Work a Little Bit Harder
This is another in Civic Way’s series of stories highlighting public servants in America. Our initial stories involved the County Court Clerk, School Bus Driver, School Principal and ESL Teacher. We hope that these stories, and those to follow, will illuminate the daily challenges facing public servants and underscore their importance to our communities. The authors, Bruce Anderson and Bob Melville, have many years of management consulting experience with governmental agencies, at all levels.
According to the American Public Works Association (APWA), there are over 140 public works functions, including engineering, streets, sidewalks, sanitation, public building and grounds management, public fleet management, storm water management and public utilities (e.g., water and wastewater). Public buildings include city halls, public safety stations and community centers.
A Maintenance and Engineering Supervisor is one of many vital municipal public works jobs. In many cities, it is a mid-level management position responsible for supervising engineering staff, service crews (e.g., road repair, meter installation and building and grounds crews) and capital improvement projects.
While salaries vary widely by region and experience, some jurisdictions pay over $100,000 per year for the position, especially for at least ten years of relevant experience. Other customary qualifications may include a high school degree, at least one year of relevant vocational or apprenticeship training and special certification.
Max always loved clothes. Buying them. Wearing them. Selling them.
He owns a small, thriving clothing shop in the City’s small but quaint retail center. For nearly 20 years, he has been the shop’s owner, manager and only employee. He does everything. Wait on customers, order new products, answer the phone. And unlock the front door for the first customer of the day (every morning except Sundays).
One Wednesday morning, striding from the rear of the store to the front, Max notices something different. Outside his front window, he sees two men in hard hats, uniforms and fluorescent vests. They seem to be doing some kind of work in the parking spot in front of Max’s shop.
Max steps outside. Quickly surveying the street, he sees traffic cones occupying the on-street parking spaces on both sides of the street. He sees two other uniformed figures working across the street. Max approaches the two men nearest his shop.
“What’s going on, guys?,” asked Max keeping his emotions in check.
“Whaddya mean?” responds the older man.
His anger rising, Max, asks, “Why are the parking spots blocked?”
“We’re installing parking meters,” replies the older man. “The City decided last month.”
Max stares at him in disbelief. “Why today? No one told me about this. Where are my customers supposed to park?”
“I have no idea,” answers the older man. “We’re just supposed to install the meters.”
Max is incredulous. “When will you be done? I’m not the only business here that needs these parking spots. Every day without them costs us customers and money!”
The older man pauses, looks away for a moment and mutters, “I’m not sure, but our supervisor probably knows.” He gives Max a pre-printed card with his supervisor’s name and number.
Max glances at his watch. A little past 9:30 am. He returns inside fuming about the City. He read about the Council’s downtown parking discussions. He knew the on-street parking spaces would not always be free. But, why no notice? He pulls out his phone, looks at the card and dials.
* * * * *
Sitting at his desk near City Hall, Jerry is lost in his work. He has been there since before 7 am looking over the pending work orders. Reviewing personnel and equipment assignments. Assessing the need for changes to keep projects on schedule and budget.
A 24-year veteran of the department, Jerry joined the City shortly after graduating from the local high school. Before being promoted to a supervisory position two years ago, he held just about every job in the department. He thinks his first-hand knowledge of the work makes him a better supervisor.
Jerry looks out the window. The Spring sun has disappeared behind overcast skies. While rain is not expected until later that evening, the likelihood of rain must be factored into his planning.
Jerry sees two photos on his bulletin board. One photo shows several workers peering into a large hole where another worker is evidently repairing an underground pipe. The other photo is a wide-angle shot showing two workers with shovels, one digging a hole, the other several feet away filling another hole.
There may be plausible explanations, but Jerry knows that each photo captures the pervasive public perceptions of government waste. They remind him that, no matter how well their projects go, no matter how many accolades they receive, some citizens will complain.
And it will be those complaints, not the accolades, that he will hear. Still, as a resident and employee, Jerry sees every interaction with other citizens as an opportunity to make City Hall look good.
Jerry returns to today’s work orders. He meets in the Public Works conference room with two employees and assigns them some routine work orders. After a few questions, they leave to retrieve their tools and supplies.
Next, Jerry calls the crew leader for two other projects on the schedule—a traffic signal light installation and a City Hall Annex upgrade. Jerry tells the crew leader that, for the traffic signal project, he will have to keep at least one traffic lane open during rush hour, a change that will likely delay the project for a day or two, and could increase overtime costs.
Jerry doesn’t mention it, but he briefly considered ordering a night shift for the traffic signal work. Sometimes, the City does road resurfacing between 8 pm and 6 am. But night work requires special construction lights that can upset nearby residents. He doesn’t tell the crew leader, but Jerry knows the last thing the Mayor wants is avoidable citizen complaints.
Jerry reviews the City Hall Annex upgrade—a conference room buildout. Fairly routine except for a minor issue he had to navigate last week. In an informal hallway encounter, Jerry told the Mayor that they would probably need a licensed plumber to install a sink. A councilman then asked Jerry to hire a relative who happened to be a licensed plumber. Jerry explained that he planned to use a minority-owned plumbing firm under contract with the City. The councilman backed off, but Jerry would probably pay a price for this decision down the road.
Jerry asks the crew leader if he has any questions or suggestions. Hearing none, he tells the crew leader to call him with any problems and be ready for a walk-through Friday or Monday.
* * * * *
At about 9:45 am, Jerry’s phone rings. After announcing his name, Jerry asks, “How can I help you?
Max introduces himself and tells Jerry about the parking situation in front of his shop, highlighting the City’s failure to notify him and the other businesses around him.
Jerry listens, asking a few follow-up questions. After a few minutes, Jerry apologizes for the City’s miscue, but Max seems unmoved. Jerry immediately grasps that this is one of those situations he needs to defuse in person. He promises to see Max right away.
As Jerry walks to his assigned City vehicle, it occurs to him that Max’s name sounds familiar. Quickly, his thoughts shift to the issue at hand. He wonders how the City could have failed to notify the business owners. Everyone had worked so hard in planning the downtown parking meter project. Had the City failed to notify any other businesses? If so, who dropped the ball?
For two months, the Council debated alternative strategies for improving parking in the downtown retail area. Financing more off-street parking would require new revenues. Generating on-street parking revenues would require metering the City’s free parallel parking spots. And charging for on-street parking would likely trigger more citizen complaints.
After extensive deliberations and citizen input, the Council approved—in a 5-2 vote—a plan to install up to 100 parking meters downtown. The ordinance also required that the meters take coins, credit cards and payment apps. Public Works purchased the meters and materials. The Mayor promised that his office would notify citizens and the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID).
Last week, Jerry conducted a trial installation run with the crew. Reciting the project goals. Outlining the schedule. Demonstrating site preparation, hole drilling, post installation and base sealing tasks. He also met with a Finance Department staffer on meter revenue collections and a Police sergeant regarding enforcement procedures for the new meters.
* * * * *
Jerry parks his truck downtown and walks a block or two to talk to his employees.
They consider him a tough but fair manager. They know he is one of them, coming up through the ranks, learning to do most of the jobs he assigns them. In turn, Jerry trusts and respects his staff, but he won’t hesitate to intervene or discipline them if he thinks shortcuts are being taken.
The project is well underway. The two crews are busy drilling holes for the meters. After all of the holes are drilled, the meter posts will be installed and sealed and meter heads will be placed on the poles. The Finance Department will then activate the meters.
Jerry asks the crew leader, “Where’s the guy who owns the clothing shop?”
Jerry enters the clothing shop to find Max waiting on a customer. After waiting several minutes for the customer to leave, Jerry introduces himself to Max.
Jerry starts by apologizing once again for Max’s inconvenience. He confirms that no one notified Max about the meter installation and asks about the other business owners.
Max replies, “I’ve only spoken with a few of them, but it appears that no one else got the word. They’re pretty upset. By the way, when do you think the meters will be up and running?”
Jerry listens sympathetically, all the while finding something vaguely familiar about Max.
“Our schedule calls for completing the work by the end of the week, but let me check with my crew to see if they’ve encountered any issues that might affect the schedule. I’ll circle back this afternoon to give you a better idea.”
* * * * *
Jerry steps outside the shop and walks over to one of the installation crews. They have finished drilling the meter holes and are setting the first meter post. The job is proceeding on schedule.
As he watches his crew, Jerry is confronted by one of the adjoining retailers. She introduces herself as Alice, the owner of the stationary store across the street from Max’s shop. Her complaint about not receiving any notice matches Max’s story. However, she also complains vociferously about the removal of free parking spaces and how it will hurt her business.
With his crew within ear shot, Jerry apologizes to Alice about the City’s communication failure. He promises to complete the meter installation as quickly as possible to minimize the disruption to her business. He then tries to assure her that the new parking meters will benefit the entire downtown. While she remains skeptical, Jerry explains the City’s rationale as politely as possible.
Jerry then asks Alice, “What did the BID Director have to say about the project?”
She stares at Jerry for a moment and said, “Nothing. The BID Director quit over two weeks ago.”
“You mean, you never heard anything from the BID regarding the meter project?”
“Not recently. We were advised by the BID Director that the Council was considering it, but we never heard what they decided. Until now, we didn’t know that the meters were going in today.”
Jerry thanks her and promises to get back to her later that day.
Jerry calls the Mayor’s Office and learns that they had indeed sent a notice to the BID Director, but never followed up. He then calls his boss at Public Works to tell her about the notice issue. She advises him to call the Mayor’s Office back to report what he learned about the BID Director.
After finishing his calls, Jerry checks on the second crew. He watches them for a half-hour or so. A little later, both crews break for a 30-minute lunch in a nearby shaded pocket park. Since Jerry didn’t bring a lunch, he picks up an iced tea and chicken sandwich at the deli next to Max’s shop.
* * * * *
At about 2 pm or so, Jerry checks again on the status of the work. Nearly two-thirds of the meter posts are set. The work is on schedule and meets Jerry’s expectations. Barring an unforeseen problem, the meters could be installed by tomorrow morning and fully activated by Friday at noon.
Just before he reenters Max’s shop, Jerry is approached by Tom, the senior crew member. “I hate to tell you this, but it looks like we won’t have enough sealant to finish the job,” he said. “We’re on the fifth container and have only two left.”
Jerry instinctively asks Tom, “Really? Did we underestimate how much sealant we would need or are we using more than expected?”
Tom answers defensively, “We used the estimating factors you gave me when we built the workplan. This could delay the project until next week.”
Jerry, with a trace of agitation in his voice, snaps, “Let’s not worry right now about who did what, let’s concentrate on how much more we will need to stay on track and where we can get it.”
“They don’t have any more at the warehouse,” counters Tom. “Maybe they have something else we can use to get us through today.”
Jerry’s face betrays his frustration. “I’m not gonna risk screwing up the job or spoiling the warranty by cutting corners. We have specifications for a reason.”
“Tom, go ahead and use up what you have,” Jerry continues. “I’ll call the meter distributor to see if they can get us a couple more containers of the right sealant today.”
After waiting on the phone for ten or fifteen minutes, Jerry learns that the distributor can provide the sealant today if he can pick it up. Jerry returns to his truck, drives back to City Hall, obtains a City Purchasing Card and drives to the distributor to buy the sealant.
It is close to 3:30 pm when Jerry returns to the work site. He hops out and carries the two containers—one at a time—to where Tom is working.
“Just in time,’ grins Tom. “Let’s take one to Phil so he can finish.”
Jerry tells the crews to finish the work before leaving, promising overtime if they need it. He decides to stay on-site until all of the meter posts are set and the clean-up completed. He inspects the work and thanks the team for a job well done.
At about 6:30 pm, Jerry drives back to the office. He likes how quiet the office is after hours. It makes it easier to catch up on emails and prepare for the next day. As he wades through his emails, he remembers that he had forgotten to get back to the two shop owners.
He cleans up his desk and drives back downtown, parking his vehicle near Max’s clothing shop. He calls on Alice first, telling her that they should be able to install the meters by Thursday evening and activate the meters Friday morning. Jerry thinks she looks pleased (or relieved).
He then stops by to speak with Max. Max, alone this time, greets Jerry warmly. Jerry tells Max that they are on schedule and that the meters will be operational by noon on Friday. He apologizes again for the miscommunication and tells Max about the BID Director.
“If you don’t hear from the Mayor’s Office or BID by next week, please call me,” Jerry tells Max.
Max thanks Jerry for getting back to him. Jerry smiles appreciatively and tells Max that, as a life-long resident, he understands how important it is for City Hall to be responsive.
As Max listens, a look of recognition lights his face. “I think we went to the same high school,” he tells Jerry.
After exchanging a few memories, they conclude that they both graduated from the local high school, only a year apart. In fact, for a season or two, they had been on the track team together. After agreeing to keep in touch with Max, Jerry leaves the shop.
Jerry makes the short drive home. Later that night, he logs on to the City’s network and spends almost two hours doing the prep work that the parking meter project forced him to put off.
Tomorrow may be unpredictable, but the preparation never hurts.
In the US, there are over 3,000 counties, 19,500 municipalities and 16,300 townships. They vary widely in size and scope. The smallest municipalities have limited budgets and capabilities, often contracting for engineering and maintenance services, sometimes from county governments or other municipalities. Some cities are run by independently elected mayors and some by appointed city managers.
Localities employ a wide variety of organizational models for their public works functions. Perhaps the most common model assigns engineering, streets, sanitation, building and grounds management, fleet management and storm water management to a Public Works Department and utilities, code enforcement building inspection and parks maintenance to other departments. In some areas, utility services like water, wastewater and energy are provided by regional authorities or private companies.