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Small, medium, or large: how do small towns size up to large cities?

David versus Goliath. Efficient versus ineffective. Weak versus strong. This is how many people may compare small towns to large cities. Small towns' public works departments have small staffs, less red tape, and fewer political problems while big cities have large bureaucracies, more money, and more professional staffs--right?


The nation's three largest cities (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, respectively) may have the biggest public works budgets and the most diverse departments, but this doesn't necessarily mean they are managed better. And cities so small that don't even show up on a typical map may have less paperwork to muddle through, but that doesn't necessarily make their public works departments efficient.

We wanted to find out what the differences really are, so the editors of PUBLIC WORKS talked to four cities--two large, two small. Here are their stories.


Public position, personal pride

Dennis Clowers, PE, has been on the job just a few months. Clowers, public works director of Oklahoma City (OKC), took over the job after 33 years in the private sector. He has taken the helm and tackled many jobs in his short time with OKC.

"The fiscal year 2005-2006 budget includes 428 authorized positions and includes seven different functional divisions: administration, traffic management, engineering, field services development center, street and drainage maintenance, and stormwater quality," he said. His budget of slightly more than $63 million serves 506,000 people (2000 U.S. Census data).

Clowers switched from the private sector to the public arena for a host of reasons, one of which was selling his own firm at an opportune time. He also took the "opportunity to work with a great municipal staff, from the city manager on down," he said. He took on the position as a personal opportunity to give back something to the community in a different way. "My father had worked in government throughout his career," said Clowers. "He was also a civil engineer, but became the first planning director of Oklahoma City, and then the county engineer for Oklahoma County. I love Oklahoma City."


His devotion to the city shines through in everything he does, including is his managerial style. "I feel that I deal with people well, trying to see all sides of any situation," he said. "In my short time with the city, I have tried to allow my employees the freedom to do their job, to make decisions that they are capable of making--both of which I hope will allow for more productivity in our department. We have very capable, well-trained people here and they are a pleasure to work with."

But how does his work ethic translate to large jobs, like the Walnut Avenue Bridge project? The project, which has cost the city more than $5 million already (well above the 1989 estimate of $2.1 million), will replace the bridge with a historically accurate structure that meets current design standards.

"In August 2004, the structure was inspected and rated below three tons," said Laura Story, PE, the GO (general obligation) Bond program manager with OKC's department of public works. "The city had three options: rehabilitate the structure to over three tons, remove and replace the structure, or close the bridge." The city opted to close the bridge, but then ran into some difficulty with Union Pacific Railroad, which was finally settled last month. "As of January the project is back under construction and anticipated to open in August 2006," said Story.

This project, along with a host of other items, is on Clowers to-do list for the upcoming months. "The goals for the next six months would include delivering at least $60 million in GO Bond Issue projects this fiscal year, improving our service in our permitting area, and our street resurfacing and repair," he said.

"Long-term, I hope to improve the way we do business for our citizens. We need to demonstrate to the citizens how good a job we are doing. We are preparing to enter a new program called Leading for Results, which will involve instituting new performance measures not only for public works, but for every department in the city. This will allow us to demonstrate to the citizens what they are getting for their tax dollars," said Clowers. "We will also, in the next few months, be putting together a new general obligation bond issue for streets, drainage, traffic, parks, and other public improvements, to be submitted to the voters sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. The implementation of this new bond issue program will be something for the long term, 2008 to 2013."

Clowers feels that with available personnel and equipment resources, the OKC public works department is able to make both non-emergency and emergency repairs to infrastructure in a timely manner. "We can also tackle some of the most complicated issues that may or may not be seen in smaller communities, who often use us for our expertise," he said.

So how is OKC different from a small town? "I have provided engineering services for smaller cities in the Oklahoma City area, such as the cities of Yukon, Edmond, Warr Acres, and Norman. Actually, I don't find a great deal of difference. The staffs are smaller in the others, but you have to work with them just the same as with those in a larger city," he said.

Oklahoma City fast facts

Population: 506,000

Area covered: 621 square miles

PW budget: $63.35 million

Web site:

Biggest hurdles: Funding, staffing, and consistency in delivering capital improvement plan projects

Services outsourced: Engineering/architecture, stormwater quality and water analysis testing, household hazardous waste disposal


Small town, big ideas

Pamela Broviak, PE, lives where she works. As the city engineer/director of public works for LaSalle, Ill., she knows her town and its residents intimately. She feels that working in a small town has definite differences from being in a large city.

"There is more contact and communication between personnel within public works and between the public works department and other departments, such as police and fire," she said. "Another difference is our knowledge of the community. Most of us can visualize each block in town and usually we even know who lives on a particular street. Handling citizen complaints is easier when the person calling already knows us on a personal basis."

This ability to "visualize each block" has served Broviak well in her town of 9796 people. "My fellow employees and the people in my community know that I genuinely care about them and our community and will always try to make the right decision," she said. "I don't make too many major decisions without seeking input from our employees and from the public."


The difficulty, however, of working in a small town, is that Broviak wears several hats. Since the position of building inspector hasn't been filled yet, she's been unofficially serving in that position until it is. The full public works staff comprises 21 full-time employees in the field, three temporary full-time workers in the field, one administrative position, one superintendent, and one public works director.

Because of the small department size, much work is outsourced. "We hire engineering consultants for major projects that cannot be completed in-house such as the design of a new wastewater or water treatment plant," said Broviak. "Small sewer or water projects are done with our staff in cooperation with a local contractor. All large projects are sent out to bid. All architectural work is performed by a local architectural firm."

The biggest hurdle that LaSalle has had to overcome in recent years is the age-old problem: money. Although Broviak feels that the public works department's budget is average for a city of its size, the money crunch is often felt in more ways than one. "The median income in our community is below average, and the mall built in a neighboring community in the 1970s decreased our retail base," she said. "We are just now starting to slowly recover from that."

The town has, however, managed to maintain equipment and services without too many increases in the budget, even though the town's size has doubled in the past decade. "This has required some careful oversight of expenditures by our comptroller," said Broviak. "We may have some challenges in the near future because we are expecting some significant development that will require construction of new facilities and addition of personnel in our water and wastewater systems."


Broviak's previous experience with a larger city, Aurora, Ill. (population 143,000), has given her insight into how a larger town might work differently and how she might prepare for her town's new construction. "Each department [in Aurora] had significantly more personnel and there was less interaction between departments on a daily basis," she said. "Also, the wastewater treatment operations were separate from public works."

LaSalle, Ill., at a glance

Population: 9796

PW budget: $3.73 million

Web site:

Largest current project: Project with the Illinois DOT to perform all water main work for the ongoing reconstruction project. This involves water main, fire hydrant, and service relocations.


Big jobs, small pieces

Philadelphia has a rich past. Last month, the home of the Liberty Bell celebrated the 300th birthday of Ben Franklin, one of its most noted citizens. Since its founding, the "City of Brotherly Love" has grown and modernized; today, Mr. Franklin would hardly recognize it.

The city is home to 1.5 million people, and while it casts a protective eye toward its history, it also must provide adequate, up-to-date public works infrastructure for its citizenry. In order to deliver more efficient service, the Philadelphia public works department split in 1999 into a number of factions, each covering a different public works arena.

"For a large city, with very diverse needs for a sizable population, the amount of specialization needed for various services and products provided requires specific departments for each of these services and products," said streets commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson. "Although there are certainly challenges related to the size of large-city public works operations, there are also great opportunities to form synergies among separate departments, and separate divisions within departments."

Serving one of the nation's largest cities is no small feat and requires a significant amount of manpower. The streets department alone has a staff of more than 1800 people; its fiscal year 2006 operating budget stands at $152.7 million. Other departments cover water/sewer, public buildings/facilities, recreation/park facilities, and aviation. Each department is headed by a commissioner, who reports to managing director Pedro A. Ramos; his responsibilities also include overseeing police and fire emergency operations.

"This allows us to each focus our resources on our individual tasks, but have the interagency support to work together to achieve our common goal, which is to serve the citizens of Philadelphia," said Tolson.

The streets department faces many of the same problems common to all public works agencies, large or small. It has seen decreases in capital funding, staff reductions over the past several years, increasing costs, and a mounting difficulty in getting projects off the ground.

"The various environmental and historic concerns in a city as old as ours also tend to make project implementation more difficult than in the past, as these concerns must be determined, accommodated, and respected," said Tolson. "This often increases the time required to develop projects in design."


The Philadelphia streets department consists of two primary divisions. Sanitation offers integrated solid waste management, which includes refuse collection and disposal and recycling, street cleaning, and a household hazardous waste collection program. Part of this division, the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, manages the city's volunteer network of 6800 block captains and supports their efforts to beautify the city's neighborhoods. Sanitation also includes units dedicated to public education regarding solid waste and recycling, and to policy enforcement.

Personnel of Philadelphia's highway division are charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining more than 2400 miles of city streets. The departmental division manages all snow and ice removal operations on the city's streets. In fiscal year 2005, the division repaired 20,800 potholes, and it restored 1000 cave-ins and 7400 ditches. Its engineering unit performs all surveying functions, designs city streets and highways, plans and constructs city bridges, and manages major improvement and reconstruction projects. On average, there are 42 concurrent projects in progress at any given time, in various stages.

The traffic engineering unit establishes traffic regulations and institutes all appropriate controls (signs, signals, markings, and other devices) for regulating and controlling vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In Philadelphia, this includes approximately 21,000 intersections. The street lighting unit is responsible for the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of the city's street lighting system, which includes more 100,000 street lights and 18,000 alley lights.

In addition, administrators provide support services to the streets operating divisions. The team offers services in the areas of budget, accounting, planning and analysis, information technology, human resources, training and development, and communications.

Overall, the city of Philadelphia out-sources only a minimal amount of work. The highway division uses some contract forces in snow removal operations, and in milling for resurfacing roads. The transportation planning unit outsources some engineering design work, primarily related to highway/traffic signal design and railroad electrification revisions for bridges. One current bridge project, on South Street, is assigned to a design consultant; all other bridge projects are designed in house.

One of the most significant projects recently tackled by the department is the $10 million effort to revitalize North Broad Street, one of Philadelphia's major traffic carriers. The project includes modernizing traffic signals at 22 intersections, replacing more than 400 street lights, and sidewalk/landscaping "streetscape" improvements at selected locations. The project--expected to be completed in spring 2006 after 18 months of work--will enhance pedestrian safety.

There is one more active component of the Philadelphia streets department: its citizens. It benefits from community/neighborhood groups, institutions, and business improvement districts in neighborhood beautification efforts, litter removal, and road and sidewalk maintenance. The city's partnerships with its constituents have been successful, and the town continues to foster such relationships.

Philadelphia fast facts

Population: 1.5 million

Population rank among U.S. cities: fifth

PW budget: $942 million

Web site:

Hurdles: Due to budget cuts and attrition, the number of public works personnel in the city is at a 40-year low

Big project: In November, the city opened its $5.2 million Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center, a 20,100-square-foot facility with a gymnasium, activity spaces, playground, and tennis courts


Creative contracts, achieved goals

How is a very small town able to maintain quality infrastructure? "Partnerships for us is survival," said Gary Cinnamon, town administrator in Lyons, Colo. "If we don't have partnerships, then the cost of maintaining the streets and infrastructure would increases our budget to where it would raise the cost of doing business in town."

Lyons, a town of 1585 people nestled at the foot of the Rockies, is not so much a tourist town in its own right as a way-point on the road to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park 20 miles further into the mountains. Originally a quarry town for world-famous Lyons sandstone, it has in recent years become a rapidly growing bedroom community for Boulder, 15 miles to the south.


The public works department in Lyons has four employees: public works director Scott Daniels, a foreman, and two others. "But all of them are working positions," said Cinnamon. "Scott takes care of the administrative jobs, but when needed he works in the field, too. Whatever needs to be done, we all jump in and take care of things. When we have an emergency or have something that needs to get done immediately, we share crews between the parks department and public works. We have job descriptions but they go away in a hurry when something needs to get done."

Lyons' public works department is responsible for the roads, the sewers, the potable water, and the electric power systems. And yet large parts of that work are contracted out. "We contract with Albert's Water and Wastewater Service to manage our water and wastewater treatment plants," said Cinnamon. "One problem we had was, being a small town, we would train operators for the water and wastewater plants, but once they got their operator's license, they could make so much more money working elsewhere that they would leave us. Turnover was high and trying to keep people trained was expensive and difficult. So contracting out with a service to run the system took away that headache. Same with the electric system. We had one lineman but when he retired we decided to contract out that work. This saves us money and it's a much safer system now."

Recently Lyons faced a dilemma with its water system. "We had two major problems," said Cinnamon. "First was that the old plant couldn't meet the new drinking water standards. And second was that the only storage we had was 300 acre-feet in Buttonrock reservoir, but our on-stream water right priority was low so we were at the mercy of others who had higher rights to the water. We were looking at a microfiltration system and creating some raw water storage with a price tag of $10 million. We looked at 13 different options to fix our water predicament. About a year and half into trying to figure out what to do, Longmont (a much larger town about 12 miles away) came to us and said we'll treat your water at cost on a pump back system. This was a $4.8 million deal. At first I was reluctant, but the more we talked I became convinced that it was the only option. We are now done with this transition and it works amazingly well, so the water and wastewater contractor will only be responsible for the wastewater plant operations, although they will still be responsible for testing the water, making sure the system stays clean and good. But 99% of our water treatment is going away."

Creativity is critical in all aspects of the work in Lyons. "A lot of our utilities are very old," said Cinnamon. "We have a water main under Main Street that is 60 or 70 years old. We have lots of utilities that no one took the time to indicate where they are. A lot of times we'll start with institutional memory: we'll find the oldest guys in town and ask them if they remember where it is. We budgeted money this year to begin a GIS program, which will be huge for us. We've petitioned the Denver Regional Council of Governments to help us out with some funding for a GIS--they have technicians that will come to help us. We just have to be creative, but there are some resources out there.

"We have a great relationship with the Colorado DOT," said Cinnamon. "We share a lot of things: if they need water for a project we give them water and they give us paint for striping, they help us with sand and salt--there's a good spirit of cooperation, which is important for a small town.

"The key," he reiterates, "is creativity. If someone walks through that door with an idea, I want to hear it. Some go right back out the door, but every once in a while one is excellent and we save some money and provide something good to our citizens."

Lyons, Colo., at a glance

Population: 1585

Land area: 1.2 square miles

PW budget: $3.86 million

Web site:

Rate of growth: Currently 810 water taps expected to increase to 1310 (build out) in 10 years; 70 taps sold in 2005
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Title Annotation:Special report
Author:Rozgus, Amara; Palmer, William D., Jr.; Spinner, Jenni
Publication:Public Works
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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