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Equipment reduces labor force by half.

When faced with increasing tight budget constraints, what strategies can a municipal department director take to continue providing quality service to the township and yet not spend over the budget? This was the state of affairs and the hard question facing Bill Surrick in 1979 when he took the position of director of public works for Bristol Township, Pennsylvania. The strategies he has been taking since then to resolve the problem are paying off.

Bristol Township is 20 miles north of Philadelphia, near the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It covers 17 square miles and has 170 miles of roads and streets. Population is about 58,000 and is relatively steady.

Surrick's department is responsible for all improvements, maintenance, and repair of the township's roads and streets, storm sewer system, and all the municipal buildings. Recently the traffic safety and recreational park department was disbanded and the responsibilities assigned to Surrick's department. These responsibilities include the maintenance and repair of the traffic signals system, as well as caring for the township's 100-acre park. The park is in the middle of a flood plain and is primarily meadows of grass dotted with well established trees. The meadows must constantly be mowed during the growing season to prevent weeds from overtaking grass.

When Surrick became director, he inherited a staff of 35 people. At that time, he had less of everything to maintain, including fewer roads, a smaller storm sewer system and, of course, the traffic safety system and park were not the department's responsibility. Today, with greater responsibilities, Surrick is operating the department with only 16 people.

Not only are there more roads and a bigger storm sewer system to maintain but Surrick's smaller work force is doing a better job of maintaining them. Simply put, the taxpayer in Bristol Township is getting better service for the tax dollars spent by the department.

Smaller Staff; More Equipment

With federal cutbacks inevitable and local governments planning for gradual reduction of staff, a way had to be found to stay within budgets that would be approved by township councils in the future yet still maintain or improve the level of service supplied to the taxpayer. Surrick's strategy, evolved out of necessity, has been to purchase new equipment that could dramatically replace labor. At the same time, the labor force was reduced by attrition, with no one losing his job before retirement age.

Surrick purchases the new equipment as the people either retire or quit their job. Adding new equipment as people leave the department helps maintain an even cash flow that stays within the budget. This is an important part of his labor reducing/equipment purchasing program. He essentially is replacing labor with equipment.

The most important purchasing criterion is that the equipment must directly reduce labor costs enough to pay for itself within five or seven years. If the equipment question cannot meet this criterion, it is given no further consideration.

For any new equipment to be significantly labor saving, Surrick says it must be either larger or designed better, with higher production capabilities than the piece it is replacing. To illustrate, Surrick decided in 1985 to purchase a new Aquatech pipeline cleaner, a combination high pressure flusher and catch basin cleaner. It replaces two pieces of equipment, one a flusher and the other a vacuum cleaner. Four people, two for each machine, were required to operate the flusher and the vacuum cleaner. Now only two people are needed to operate the Aquatech cleaner, and the machine performs the flushing and vacuuming in half the time. The Aquatech costs $105,000 in 1985. The two people eliminated from the payroll saved $250,000 in labor and benefits, from 1985 to 1990.

Versatile Excavator

The most recent equipment purchase made by Surrick is a new Link-Belt LS-2800LF hydraulic excavator. What makes this model so versatile, according to Surrick, are the two combination boom/arm sizes that are available. One combination enables the machine to have a maximum digging radius of 32 ft 3 in. and maximum digging depth of 21 ft 1 in. This is considered the conventional configuration. The other boom/arm has extraordinary digging capabilities with a maximum digging radius of 51 ft 2 in. and a maximum digging depth of 39 ft 11 in. The machine weighs 46,740 lb. including the longer boom/arm.

Surrick chose this particular excavator because it is available with both boom/arm combinations. The new excavator replaces a truck-mounted lattice boom crane and rubber-tired excavating equipment. The crane was outfitted with a digging clam bucket for cleaning out drainage ditches.

Levittown, which is part of Bristol Township, was built in the middle 1950s and is considered one of the oldest single family housing developments in the country. The Levittown developers built more than 10 miles of ditches in Bristol Township to collect surface run-off water caused by heavy rainfalls. These ditches range from 8 to 12 ft deep and are 50 ft wide at the top, with the banks sloping to a 30-ft wide base. Flow is sufficient to maintain a water depth of two to four ft in the ditches.

The ditches collect not only the surface water run-off but in addition, because of soil erosion, thousands of tons of top-soil are washed into the ditches each year. The deposited soil eventually reaches a level where the water flow is partially obstructed.

Keeping the ditches free of the silt has been a very time consuming and costly endeavor for the department, according to Surrick. It required operating the crane seven months each year. In recent years, the crane had more downtime than it was operating, because of its age and difficulty in getting parts. The high labor costs and the age of the crane was reason enough to buy the excavator.

The excavator also replaces the production capabilities of two rubber-tired front-end loaders used for storm sewer installation.

Bristol Township has a special $7-million budget for road and street rehabilitation. The excavator, outfitted with a rock bucket, is capable of tearing up the old asphalt paving and loading trucks. With a machine this size, the township can have the rehabilitation work done by the department instead of bringing in an outside contractor, thereby reducing costs. Surrick says the combination of the big excavator and his own productive work crew can be very efficient, thereby making him competitive with outside contractors. This is particularly true with installing storm sewers up to 18 in. in diameter.

The main reason for purchasing the Link-Belt excavator was to reduce labor costs. The excavator cleans out the 10 miles of ditches in two months' time. The total quantity of silt excavated is about 180,000 cu yd. The two months of labor (excavator operator's time) costs $4,500 as compared to $15,750 labor costs needed to operate the crane. That is an $11,250 savings each year.

These savings go a long way in amortizing the $115,000 price for the excavator. Labor savings are also realized by replacing the work of the two rubber-tired front-end loaders with the excavator. This reduces machine operator costs by half. Just how much labor cost can be saved depends on the quantity of new storm sewers installed in any given year.

The short boom/arm is used for storm sewer trenching. The shorter configuration enables the operator to maneuver and dig under close working conditions such as are found in residential areas. Also, the machine has greater bucket digging force when using the short boom/arm combination instead of the long boom/arm. A standard 24 in. wide, half cu yd capacity digging bucket is used for trenching.

The long boom/arm is used for cleaning the ditches because of its reach. A special 60 in. wide bucket with a struck capacity of three-quarter cu yd is used for increased production and to reslope the banks.

Small Purchase, Big Savings

Not all labor saving equipment has a high purchase price. To illustrate, Surrick recently purchased two new grass rotary mowers to replace four smaller rotary mowers. The park's meadows are cut in 10-day cycles. This had required four fulltime people operating tractors with six ft wide cut rotary mowers. The two new mowers have 13 ft and 18 ft wide cuts, respectively. The labor costs saved are $18,000 per season. The two mowers were paid for in the first season by the labor savings.

Another labor reduction that Surrick has been responsible for is trading in mechanical street sweepers for vacuum street sweepers. Two Elgin vacuum street sweepers were put into service in 1980. According to Surrick, the vacuum type enabled each operator to increase the length of street swept each day from four miles to five miles.

Not all labor savings in Surrick's department have been due to new and more productive equipment. For example, Surrick switched from concrete storm drainage pipe to PVC pipe for all new pipeline installations. He has been able to reduce his pipeline crew from eight to five persons yet maintain the productivity. The labor required to handle the heavy concrete pipe is eliminated, thus reducing the crew size.

Surrick's equipment-for-labor program is paying off. His program can work for

other public works departments with a similar set of circumstances. The key is to purchase equipment that matches the department's work load and yet reduce labor costs sufficiently so the equipment can be amortized within a short time.
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Title Annotation:municipal maintenance in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania
Publication:Public Works
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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