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Contract OM&M helps city improve public works services, reduce costs.

Managing a public works department today requires expertise in an ever-widening range of managerial and technical disciplines. Because of this, many municipalities are finding it difficult to cost-effectively provide residents high-quality public works services. To lower costs and improve services, a growing number of local governments are contracting out the operations, maintenance, and management (OM&M) of their public works departments to specialized firms. The city of Moore, Oklahoma, for example, contracted out the OM&M of its public works department and has found it significantly reduces costs, helps ensure compliance with regulations, improves services for residents, and benefits department employees.

Moore's public works department had experienced increasing complaints and operational problems in recent years. Residents had expressed concern over the worsening condition of city streets and grounds, and had repeatedly voiced complaints about odors from the city's wastewater treatment facility. State and federal regulators also expressed mounting concern over the operation of Moore's wastewater plant as well as its aging water well system.

The Contract OM&M Option

Further prompted by growing financial difficulties, the Moore City Council directed city staff to study contracting out public works services as a means to reduce costs and restore service quality. Based on the results of this study, city staffers drafted a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) and issued it to several national OM&M firms. in addition to addressing technical expertise, experience, and employee provisions, the RFQ required that the selected contractor provide the city with financial assistance, which would be repaid concurrent with the contract term.

A task force was formed by the city council to evaluate the qualifications. The task force, comprised of representatives from the council, city hall, and the public works staff, then carried out a three-month evaluation of the two firms that it had shortlisted. The evaluation included site visits to public works departments operated by the firms and interviews with municipal officials at these locations. It also included discussions with former municipal employees that now work for the two firms.

Based on this comprehensive evaluation, the council awarded a five-year contract to Professional Services Group, Inc. (PSG) for the OM&M of the city's public works department. PSG began operating the department in December 1993.

Moore's public works department serves 45,000 residents and is currently the largest privately-operated municipal public works department in the United States. The department is responsible for wastewater treatment, biosolids management, industrial pretreatment, drinking water supply, wastewater collection, water distribution system maintenance, meter reading, solid waste collection, city vehicle maintenance, buildings, parks and grounds maintenance, and animal control.

At the start of contract OM&M, PSG assigned an experienced manager to the department and hired the city's existing public works personnel. The project manager works closely with the firm's technical and managerial experts to develop and implement creative approaches to improve services and control costs. These approaches include the use of computerized process control and automation to optimize water and wastewater services, and more efficient utilization of the department's manpower.

The firm has centralized the various operational divisions within the department, with the majority of employees now working out of the city's main public works facility, rather than four different locations as in the past. This has allowed for better manpower scheduling.

Contract operations has eliminated much of the departmental red tape. Rather than working exclusively for one division of the department (i.e. sanitation or parks), public works employees now work for various divisions as service needs change. This helps the department address high-priority service requests in a timely manner and allows employees to be cross-trained in different operational disciplines to improve worker versatility and efficiency. Water fine maintenance personnel, for example, are now cross-trained to also maintain the city's wastewater collection system.

PSG has implemented an extensive safety training program, which includes first aid and emergency operating procedures for the entire public works staff. The contract operator also supplies department employees with uniforms and personal protection equipment, such as hard hats, steel-toe boots, and safety glasses, to help ensure worker safety.

In addition to these improvements, the private firm has resolved specific operational difficulties within the department. These improvements have not only restored the quality of Moore's public works services, they have reduced the department's OM&M costs by $600,000 a year.

Wastewater Treatment

In fall 1993, recurrent odors from Moore's wastewater treatment facility prompted the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) to order the disposal of approximately three million gallons of biosolids that were improperly stored at the plant. The city had a program in place to apply biosolids to local farmland, but it could not keep up with the plant's daily production, resulting in a large accumulation of biosolids at the plant. The ODEQ order carried a $1,500-a-day fine if the city did not address the problem by mid-December and resolve it 90 days thereafter. The order also required the city to develop and submit a long-term biosolids management plan.

After assuming responsibility for the wastewater operation in December, PSG immediately began removing biosolids from the plant to satisfy the state regulatory agency. PSG also runs land application programs for nearby Oklahoma City, Mustang, and Yukon, Oklahoma. The firm brought in its own application equipment at no additional cost to the city and PSG biosolids specialists developed an improved land application program.

PSG removed the excess biosolids from the plant within 45 days and repaired Moore's existing application equipment, which had limited the success of the city's earlier land application program. Working closely with state and federal agencies, the firm developed and submitted a formal biosolids management plan and obtained the necessary regulatory approvals.

About this time, the city was also informed that its industrial pretreatment program (IPP) was not in compliance with U.S. EPA requirements. Although a basic IPP had been developed by the city a few years earlier, it had not been implemented nor had it received the required regulatory review. Because of this, Moore risked fines and legal action.

Working closely with the EPA, PSG modified and rewrote Moore's industrial pretreatment program. The new program includes implementing effective data-tracking systems and working with local businesses and industries to develop the necessary documentation. The revised industrial pretreatment program has since received EPA approval.

Drinking Water Supply

Over the years, almost half of Moore's 34 water wells had failed and been left unrepaired due to lack of funds. Because the city had neither the money nor the necessary technical expertise, it simply purchased more and more water from Oklahoma City at $1.45 per thousand gallons. With so many wells out of service, the city was spending as much as $4,000 a day on water purchases during peak summer demand.

In addition to the rising costs to purchase water, the ODEQ had ordered the city to restore its full water production by spring 1995. To reduce water costs and meet the ODEQ mandate, the contract operator worked with local subcontractors to systematically repair each water well. This included performing a bacterial analysis of the water from each well to ensure that public health was protected. In addition, a computerized maintenance management system was installed to prioritize and schedule preventive and corrective maintenance duties for the wells and related mechanical systems.

By September 1994, PSG had the majority of Moore's wells back on line, restoring two million gallons of additional water a day and meeting the requirement of the ODEQ order. The city is saving approximately $250,000 a year by virtually eliminating water purchases. Well water is now produced for approximately 45 cents per thousand gallons.

Public Services Improvement

Prior to contract OM&M, the city had also experienced problems carrying out basic road and grounds maintenance functions, evident by uncut weeds in median strips, numerous potholes in city streets, and litter in public areas throughout the city. The switch to contract operations, however, is providing the resources needed to perform roads and grounds maintenance tasks more efficiently.

For example, an asphalt application vehicle is now dedicated solely to pothole repair, providing for efficient cleaning, sealing, and hot asphalt patching for long-lasting road repairs. In addition, Moore's fleet of mowers and tractors have been repaired by the firm, now permitting regular mowing of public grounds, a service which had suffered due to sporadic equipment availability in recent years.

Moore's solid waste collection services have been improved through better scheduling and improved responsiveness to residents' service requests. The firm also recently organized and conducted two successful city-wide cleanup drives -- the first large-scale beautification efforts performed in more than three years.

To help better manage and track residents' service requests, a formal work order system was established by the contract operator. Data from the work orders, such as type of service, materials needed, and man hours required, is compiled at the end of each month to help identify operational trends and track service costs. The work order system has also helped PSG improve responsiveness.

Employee Advantages

The former city-employed public works staff has also benefited from the change from public to private operations. As part of the OM&M contract, the city's 75 public works employees were offered positions with increased wages and an improved benefits package.

After the private firm began operating the public works department, former city employees found that changes in the department were not as radical as they may have expected. One major difference, however, is that job functions are now defined more broadly to avoid "pigeonholing" employees into assignments with limited responsibility.

The firm strives to provide a work atmosphere that encourages individual contribution, and this has made a significant improvement in morale. Workers are also given increased opportunities for developing individual skills and experience through on-the-job and classroom training.

Operator training plays an important role in the success of contract OM&M in Moore. Ongoing training programs consist of both hands-on and classroom instruction for individuals to develop and maintain skins to improve efficiency.

The switch to contract operations has benefited Moore by helping increase operational efficiencies and improve the overall quality of public services for its residents. By contracting out the OM&M of its public works department, the city has also reduced OM&M costs by $600,000 a year, freeing up funds to make much needed capital improvements. Contract operations is also helping the city comply with regulatory agency requirements. Recent inspections by the ODEQ and the EPA have found Moore's water and wastewater systems to be in full compliance with environmental and regulatory requirements.
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Title Annotation:operations, maintenance and management; Moore, Oklahoma
Author:Long, Huey
Publication:Public Works
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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